We got into Melbourne in the early evening. It was the first time for a while that we had to make our way from place to place without our own transport. It felt very odd, and since we hadn't had to carry our backpacks around for any length of time for a while, it was something of a shock to the system. Fortunately our CouchSurfing host Mark had provided us with detailed directions to his place, so after getting off the plane we jumped into an airport shuttle and then onto a tram which took us to Port Melbourne - a three minute walk to Mark's flat.
I was prepared for another CouchSurfer to be there, as Mark's profile mentioned that he was a very laid-back host who often had people staying with him. So it was something of a surprise to be greeted by not one but 4 CSers when we got to the front door! There was Ying and her French boyfriend (whose name escapes me), Stefano and his girlfriend Eleonora, and Mark himself. The flat was literally three rooms: a bathroom, a kitchen/diner/lounge area, and Mark's bedroom. Mark had the bed, Eleonora and Stefano had the floor of the bedroom, Ying and the French guy had the couches and Gilly and I had a mattress on the floor of the lounge. It was cosy, but immediately sociable - Ying's other half had cooked up some concoction which made even vegetables I don't usually like taste edible (that's French cooking for you!) and we were soon all chatting away. Ying was actually leaving the next morning. She had worked for Mark previously and had been looking after the house for him whilst he'd been away, so had to catch a flight in the morning. This worked out well for us, as we also needed to go to the airport to pick up our Cheapa Campa van from the Apollo depot which was close by. We only surfed that first night, but were going to be heading back to stay with Mark after our trip to the Great Ocean Road. After Mark heard about our campervan beddingwoes, he immediately offered us a duvet and pillows for the van, which was a massive help and meant we didn't have to line Apollo's pockets any further.
The Great Ocean Road is just over 150 miles long, and runs from Torquay to Warrnambool on the SE coast of Australia. Tourist boards market it as one of those "must-do" drives in the area, and since we had the time and inclination, we thought it was worth a go for two nights.
Torquay was our first destination and was a strange place. It was full of surf shops, and one of them had a chatty blonde surfer dude behind the counter who was very interested in our travels, and told us that a lot of the things we had done were "sick" or "ill", which I can only conclude means that we should probably have gone to a pharmacy on several occasions.
After a bit of a drive and a spot of lunch in Anglesea, we reached Airey's Inlet. The highlight here is the Split Point Lighthouse, made famous for appearing in the TV show Round The Twist which both Gilly and I loved as kids.
The weather on the first day was far from optimal, but we made the most of it and the drive was scenic even with the clouds; in fact, the mist rolling over a hillside town made the place feel a little eerie.
As we didn't have a great deal of time and the weather was robbing us of any decent photo opportunities, we trundled on to Teddy's Lookout near Lorne, a famous vista point inland from the road. From there we found a beautiful cascading waterfall:
This was probably the highlight of the day, and as the light was fading we decided to park up at Kennett River Holiday Park.
The next morning was bright and sunny, and the parrots were out in force, which gave us some cheer (but possibly not for the person whose car they were destroying...):
A number of stops along the way were made as we continued along the road. We found a short trail with a full walkway that let the light through the trees magnificently:
Another lighthouse awaited us at Cape Otway, but we decided against visiting - it wasn't as iconic as Split Point, and the road you took to get to it was far more interesting: we finally saw some koalas in the wild!
What also put me off was the sign saying that it was "Australias Most Significant Lighthouse". I have no idea why, but Australian public signage is pretty awful when it comes to apostrophes. They throw them in willy-nilly when they're not required (Pizza's, Chip's, Beer's), and miss them out when they should have them (Its time to party!) or just get things wrong all over (Your not going to believe you're eyes!). They should probably pay the extra at the signmakers for proof-reading.
On the road again, we went through Lavers Hill which was so nice we stopped for lunch. There's nothing like sitting in the peaceful tranquility of a picnic area, enjoying food, and hearing the joyful comedy of "Not Going Out" ringing through the park from a laptop.
The Gibson Steps are on the way to the Twelve Apostles, a staircase which leads down to the beach. We had something of a narrow escape here. As I was taking photos, I was taken by surprise by the sea which somehow managed to sneak up on me from nowhere, and soak me. I jumped in surprise, and at some point the van keys must have fallen out of my pocket. Luckily, 30 seconds later I realised they were missing, and turned around; the waves were lapping over them on the sand. A couple of minutes later, and they may have been washed out and eaten by a curious fish.
So, the Twelve Apostles in Port Campbell. Originally named "The Sow and Piglets", when the tourism board realised that they were a popular destination, they were renamed to drag more people into the area to look at some rocks. More accurately, eight rocks. Four of the "apostles" clearly had plans elsewhere. Whilst the sunlight wasn't in the right place, there's only so many ways you can take a picture of some limestone stacks; regardless, we decided to come back the following morning when the light was on the other side of them and instead took a walk over to Thunder Cave and the Blowhole. Sounding like something from an Enid Blyton book, these are actually two different spots close by to the Apostles.
We got the shots of the Apostles the next morning. Even in better light, they weren't particularly exciting. It bewilders me that people take bus tours from Melbourne out to see them - it's a 6.5 hour round trip.
Paul and Fi had driven the Great Ocean Road ahead of us, and advised us that there wasn't much worth seeing after Warrnambool, so once we reached the town we checked out the art gallery before taking the inland road back to Melbourne. A slight miscalculation meant that we were cutting it close for returning the van back to Apollo, so we had to step on the gas. We then had to step off the gas sharpish, as we almost hit a koala who had decided to sit right in the middle of the highway. How we missed it, I have no idea - it must have been a matter of inches. It didn't even flinch...hopefully it made it across.
Returning the van to Apollo was once again comical. Our fridge door kept opening whilst driving, forcing us to wedge a bag between the fridge and the sink for our entire trip. The bored Apollo rep's response: "Oh, I'll have to double check that." That was all we heard about it. It wasn't a surprise, going on previous experience.
We got a taxi to Mark's work and got changed, and he kindly dropped us off in town where we met up with Paul and Fi - it was party time. Gilly's birthday was the following day, and we had booked tickets to a Burlesque show for the four of us.
None of us had ever seen burlesque. It's essentially a toned-down strip show, titillating but without the nudity. It's also hilarious. The compere was a lady with a plummy English accent who insisted on being called "Auntie", and had the audience in stitches throughout the entire show. There were two performers: one tattooed lady and one who had the kind of French stage name you'd expect to find in an episode of 'Allo 'Allo. We'd had a couple of super-strong cocktails before the show started which helped make the proceedings even more enjoyable, and the venue was intimate with only about 40-50 people in the audience. Each dancer did a routine before and after the intermission, and then Auntie got on stage herself and took charge of things. She needed a volunteer to help remove some articles of clothing, and since it was Gilly's birthday we nominated her, much to her obvious delight! Auntie pulled up a chair on stage and asked Gilly to take off one of her gloves...with her teeth. At this point I suspect the cocktails may have kicked in, as Gilly almost bit Auntie's finger off. Everyone was in hysterics, including Auntie once the blood had returned to her digit. After the traumatic stage performance was over, we (and Gilly especially) needed more cocktails.
Something we'd planned to do in Oz right from the very beginning was to visit The Mana Bar. Anyone familiar with the excellent Zero Punctuation will know that this is a videogame/cocktail bar set up by Yahtzee and a couple of his friends.
The cocktail menu is themed so all of the drinks have names like "Health Potion", "Ocarina of Lime", "Breath of Fire", "Elixir of Fortitude" and so on. Paul and I decided our magic was waning, so got a "Mana Potion" with a cider chaser.
(Some top photobombing from the guy behind me!)
It was time for some gaming. Whilst the ladies stuck to the tried and tested SingStar, Paul tried his luck at Mario Kart whilst I took on all-comers at Marvel vs Capcom. A 2D fighting game, I'd never played it before and I was at this point more than a little inebriated. There must have been something special in that potion though, as I managed to take on and beat 6 different people through a combination of button-mashing and sheer luck. I could retire satisfied that our world travel hadn't dulled my gaming instincts. It was soon approaching closing time, and we had just enough time for Paul and me to play some random FPS whose name escapes me.
But the night was far from finished. Our next port of call was the Black Pearl whereupon many whiskies were sunk in honour of Gilly's birthday finally being reached. Then, to top off the night/morning, Mark invited us to join him and Stefano at an English pub which (my memory is foggy here) I believe was called The Lion Hotel. In true English pub style, it was located inside a shopping mall. Things did not bode well. The inside was a bizarre mixture of pub layout crossed with crazy nightclub floorspace, and the DJ was the worst person to be let near a set of mixing decks, possibly since records began. Yet oddly, it had a kooky feel about the place and Mark was in a hyperdanceathon mood, so we sipped our drinks and watched him bounce about like a crazy bunny on speed. It was almost infectious....almost, but the music was Just Really Bad and my feet refused to move. This may or may not also have been related to the alcohol at that point.
Thankfully Mark was on hand to help us get back to his place via a tram. Melbourne has a fantastic tram system which, once you decipher the routes, can get you almost anywhere in the city at a reasonable price. They are generally on time, and run until the early hours which was really helpful for us since it must have been pushing 3am.
Feeling more than a little delicate, we took a trip to Melbourne centre the next day. I love this city. It reminds me in many respects of Bristol: a small-ish centre with most activities/entertainment located in a 1.5 mile radius which is easily walkable; a café culture; a staggering number of restaurants; a relaxed, multicultural vibe; oodles of things to do and see, with museums, galleries and exhibitions galore. It also trumps Bristol in a) having a beach and b) having decent weather. It was winter, and even though it was a little chilly there was actual sunshine. Compare this to the UK which so far in 2012 has had the wettest spring since records began and the wettest summer for 100 years. Can't wait to return.
We were in Federation Square which is in the main hub of artiness. We stopped in St. Paul's Cathedral, took in Grand Central Station, and then visited ACMI - the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.
We'd arrived during a free concert in the square, so there were plenty of people milling about and enjoying the shows. Melbourne and Sydney are fierce rivals in the cultural stakes. Melbourne is considered the "cultural centre" of Australia, with Sydney challenging that title whenever possible. As such, when one city puts on an event, the other tries to trump it. Either way, the visitor ends up the winner - with such a varied assortment of events in the calendar, it's hard to choose between them.
ACMI was going to be hosting an exhibition celebrating videogames called Game Masters a couple of weeks after we were due to leave, and was inviting such icons as Tim Schafer (Monkey Island), Warren Spector (Deus Ex) and Peter Molyneux (pretty much every God-sim created) to give talks. I was devastated that we weren't going to be there for it. Still, they had a warm-up exhibition on with a series of independent games available to play: To The Moon and Botanicula were the stand-outs. The ACMI main exhibition hall was very interesting too, as it charted the development of TV, film and videogames through to the present day. A wave of nostalgia washed over me when I saw some of the games on display.
Gilly dragged me away after a couple of hours and I bought her some chocolates from Ganache as a placeholder birthday present (her actual present was a ticket to see KA, a Cirque du Soleil show in Vegas in August). That kept her going until we got back to Mark's - he had decided that a birthday couldn't go by without having a big party, so the three of us went shopping for food and once we returned Stefano put his Italian cooking skills to work to make some pizzas. Paul and Fi came around and Mark presented Gilly with a birthday carrot cake, one of her favourite kinds of cake. Having said that, anything with the word "cake" in is one of her favourite kinds of cake.
It is safe to say that a good time was had by all, hangovers and all.
St. Kilda is located along the beachfront in Melbourne and is home to a huge number of artisans selling their wares on the promenade. Like many handicrafts, some are good, some bad and some pointlessly brilliant. We took a trip there the next day and strolled in the sunshine, enjoying the sights.
After a falafel wrap for lunch (yes, dahling we are so bohemian), we went to ACCA: the Australian Centre for Contemporary Arts. We have been to many, many modern art galleries on this trip. The content is usually variable; sometimes you can get some gems, whilst at other times you wonder what on earth was going through the heads of the people who decided that it would be good to display certain exhibits. ACCA fell into the latter category on this occasion. Have you ever wanted to see a mould of the carcasses of two halves of two horses covered in horse skin and then sewn together? Do you ever think to yourself, "I wish I had more time to see bizarre animal art, but I just can't get around to it?" If so, the ACCA is for you.
What annoyed me wasn't the exhibit itself, but the complete waste of a huge building and several massive rooms. There were three of the above pieces housed in a room the size of a small church, and that was it. They could have easily fit them into a space a quarter of the size and put some different material on display for those of us not interested in carcass-art.
Melbourne Museum is slightly better, with the usual parade of paintings by old masters (or "brown art" as Paul and Fi accurately call it) but with more contemporary photography and other modern installations like this endless neon ladder:
With light fading, there was just enough time to visit Melbourne's ANZAC memorial which was very different to Sydney's version, and which allowed you to get some great views of the city from its upper levels.
We caught a tram back to St. Kilda for sunset. Mark had told us that fairy penguins came out in the evening and you could see them near the pier; these are the same kind of penguins that you can pay a fortune to go to Fraser Island to see, and you aren't even allowed to take photographs there! We'd been tossing up whether it was worth a day trip to go there - the answer was no, as Melbourne was able to provide far, far more.
The light was far from great, but we saw a good half dozen or so little penguins hopping between rocks.
For our remaining time in Melbourne, we flitted between the superb library (there aren't enough superlatives for me to put across how much I love libraries, and the tour around Melbourne's is worth an hour of anyone's time), soaking up the great coffee shops and chocolateries (and enjoying a chocolate fondue for 2), and generally immersing ourselves in this wonderful city. We were also lucky enough to meet up with Hayley, who was the first person we met on our travels in Thailand (specifically Chiang Mai, all the way back in October) that we spent any sort of time with. She'd thoroughly enjoyed her time travelling and it was great to catch up with her.
Our flight was due to leave from Melbourne to Christchurch on June 6th at 8:55am. We bid farewell to Mark, Stefano and Eleonora and caught a train to the airport. Things soon took a turn for the worse as our flight was delayed by an hour, and then two hours, and then 4 hours. Then it was cancelled completely. As we later found out, Christchurch had that day experienced the coldest temperatures on record. The entire city was under a blanket of snow, and no aircraft were able to land at the airport. We had no choice but to try and find accommodation for an extra night in Melbourne, and hope that the rearranged flight the following day actually took off. Without wishing to burden Mark further, we decided to splash out on a flashpacker hostel called Base in St. Kilda for the night. It was like a hotel room combined with a hostel atmosphere, and was exceptionally comfortable (then again, so it should be for $100 a night!). We managed to swap four books in the book exchange, lose at a pool competition, and enjoy the free BBQ put on by the hostel in the evening.
We crossed everything the next morning and hoped that the flight was leaving...and it was. I was sad to leave Melbourne. A lot of the credit has to go to our CS host Mark, who made us feel instantly welcome and hosted us for almost a week with no complaints. If he is indicative of the type of people that live in Melbourne - and I strongly suspect he is - then it would be easy for almost anyone to make the city their home. Out of everywhere I'd visited, the city was the closest thing to the "ideal" living location I could think of. Better weather than Bristol, less remote than Perth, smaller than Sydney, more relaxed than Singapore - it was just a really nice place to be.
I was interested to see how New Zealand would fare in comparison to Australia - after 4000km of driving over 6.5 weeks, everything in NZ would seem within walking distance.