Mooching in Melbourne

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November 20th 2015
Published: December 2nd 2015
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We had arranged to travel to Melbourne by Greyhound bus again. We got a taxi to the Jolimont Centre bus station and I had time to post a parcel home (though I needed ID on this occasion for some reason - must have looked a bit shifty that morning!) before the bus left right on time at 9.00 am. The coach was only about a third full and we were quickly out of Canberra onto the Hume Highway.

The roads in Australia are really good, well maintained and virtually empty of traffic outside the cities. The speed limit is generally 110 kph on these roads, though in some places it increases to 130 kph. Overtaking rarely happens; it seems most drivers just set their cruise control at 110 and, as the roads are so empty, everyone maintains an equal distance between vehicles. It's only if you meet one of those huge road-train lorries that you might just need to pass something but even they manage to maintain the higher speeds with their huge engines. We passed mile after mile of seemingly unfarmed land. There was an occasional flock of sheep which seemed, incidentally, to be a bit bigger than ours, with longer legs, so more bang for your buck on your leg of lamb, but we saw no crop farming of any kind until we started to get closer to Melbourne when the landscape changed and the undulating hills became flatter.

We arrived in Melbourne at almost 5.00 pm so it was a long journey covering 675 kms, all done by just one driver (Fred) with one 30 minute break. We exited the bus station to the taxi rank to be greeted by complete chaos with sirens wailing and police helicopters in the sky and no buses or trams to be seen. We half expected to see Mel Gibson taking part in a shoot out or Tom Cruise filming his latest blockbuster. Getting a taxi proved to be Mission Impossible as it turned out the city was more or less gridlocked due to a bomb scare. This was inconvenient for those who lived and worked in Melbourne and proved to be quite a challenge for those of us from the other side of the world who did not know enough to be able to make alternative contingency plans! After a few phone calls to the hotel, a most unsatisfactory discussion with a pompous, aggressive, so-called 'city ambassador' with whom I almost came to verbal blows (not a good start or first impression, Melbourne) and a very productive conversation and journey with a taxi driver, we finally arrived at our hotel (the City Edge - small, clean, with a coin operated laundry in the basement - yay, properly clean clothes again!) to find they had all gone home and we were locked out! Several more phone calls later we eventually made it to our room after finally being directed to the key safe, being given an access code and releasing the key! As it turned out, the bomb scare was a false alarm - just someone's forgotten shoe purchase - but at least it forced us to be creative in the face of adversity! We had met a couple from Melbourne while we were in Singapore who had invited us to go to stay with them and for a guided tour but, being independent travellers and preferring to discover things ourselves, we had declined. Given the change in our itinerary timings, this was probably a good thing though we did think that had we gone down that route we would have had someone to meet us from the bus rather than being stuck on the streets of a strange city in meltdown!

We discovered that Melbourne (the locals pronounce it 'Melbun') has an excellent public transport system, with free city centre trams which were well used by everyone so, see, it can be done. Our hotel was just one stop (a two minute walk) from the free zone so we used the trams a lot, initially taking the circular route to orientate ourselves. This was almost like a red bus tour as there was pre-recorded commentary pointing things of note out, including Captain Cook's cottage which was apparently brought over brick by brick from Great Ayton in Yorkshire via a boat from Hull and now sits somewhat incongruously in a Melbourne park! As visitors we found the recording really useful and interesting but I suspect if you live there and use the same tram every day it could become a bit tedious, to say the least. Still, it's a good way to learn the history of your city - or you could just wear ear-plugs or listen to music instead ......

One thing we had noticed about Australians in general is that they prefer to use those almost invisible bud-type earphones with their mobile phones, rather than hold the phones to their ears with their hands. This means that you can hear their side of conversations as they pass and, if you happen to be passing at the start of a conversation you can find yourself, as I did, saying 'Hi' back to total strangers who weren't talking to you in the first place, just because you couldn't tell they were talking on the telephone, or genuinely (or stupidly in my case) considering an appropriate response to a question being asked of someone else, somewhere in the ether.

This does mean that Australia tends to look as though it is populated by lots of people talking to themselves. Then you need to factor in The Fly Problem. Now, no-one ever mentioned The Fly Problem to me before we came to Australia. I don't know why not because there is clearly an issue. We had noticed the odd one or two flies prior to Melbourne, but not in sufficient quantities for them to be a nuisance. Suddenly, it seemed as though they had mounted an invasion. They landed in significant numbers on your clothing, generally on your back where you couldn't see them but everyone behind you could, buzzed around your head, tried to fly up your nostrils or into your ears, and everyone was forced to do that wafty arm-wavy thing around the upper torso. It may not have been a Happy Monday but Bez could have learned a move or two. Combine those spastic movements with the seeming-to-talk-to-yourself scenario and we were beginning to wonder if there was something in the local water ...

Melbourne was a much more cosmopolitan city than Canberra and much bigger with a population of 4 million plus. The ethnic mix seemed to change with many more Indians in the city than we had previously noticed elsewhere.

Our strolls back to our hotel in the evenings took us past Flagstaff Park. In earlier times the hillock in the park could be seen from the harbour and the country of origin flags of ships coming in to dock were erected there to welcome them to the city. It still survives as a park but the view has long since given way to high rise buildings. We noticed that the parks were well used at all times, whether it be by office workers for an al fresco lunchbreak, young parents to play with their children, for sporting activities or for 'barbies'. Yes, the Aussies really do like to barbie and city-provided facilities are in evidence everywhere, with just about everything but the food provided. One evening a floodlit game of mixed sex netball was taking place but the poor female goal attack stood no chance against a giant male goal keeper so it seemed a little one-sided, though good fun.

During our time in Melbourne we used a combination of the free trams and the city equivalent of the red bus tours, which at $10 each (about £5) for two days was much better value than the official red bus which cost $48 each - and people still paid it! We saw many of the sights around Federation Square, the city centre, the sports area etc, and explored the little alleys, many of which were used as semi-official graffiti areas and were embraced by the city, which included them on one of its walking tours. We explored the Yarra river area on foot, crossing from one side to the other on the many different bridges, and listened to street musicians in the sunshine. The Queen Victoria market was close to our hotel and we spent an hour or two there one day followed by a drink in a backpacker pub which seemed to me to be trying too hard to be downtrodden and shabby and kind of gave the game away with its electronic dartboard which calculated the scores for the players - no blackboard and chalk here!

We had again left our onward arrangements too late (you'd think we'd learn from our mistakes, but no) and by the time we went to book our seats on the bus to Adelaide we discovered that there were none left on the day bus so we had to get the night service, operated on this occasion by Firefly. As previously mentioned, I'm not too keen on night journeys because I can't sleep on them, but needs must. At least we would be able to check in to our hotel on arrival in the early morning, having already paid for the preceding day! Killing time waiting for the bus on our last day in Melbourne the weather changed again and it poured down most of the time. By the time we got on the bus we were pleased to be in the warm and dry.

Overall, I found Melbourne to be a typical bustling city, but with nothing particularly outstanding in terms of visitor attractions or experiences, though it did have the usual Sea World type aquarium and zoo if you like that kind of thing. The Melburnians themselves seemed to like it, though they themselves could be quite dour and grumpy at times, perhaps responding to the stresses of city life and work.


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