Month: September 2014

Melbourne strolls and going down the road to watch waves roll

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Sydney might be the smart, pretty, popular girl who liked team sports growing up and is now hiking up the corporate ladder on her way to being a VP in a bank. Melbourne on the other hand, leans more to a girl who preferred books, cigarettes, and sketching art in coffee shops as a teenager and now works as a graphic designer for a web company.

Broad strokes, I know – but I found the two cities definitely had their own distinct identities. This is fuelled, of course, by a friendly rivalry between them – or as is often mentioned moreso by Melburnians who, like any good underdog, enjoy poking holes in Sydney’s #1 status. (As a Canadian living above the US, I can empathize.)

However, things weren’t always this way, and signs suggest they’re headed for a change. In 1865 Melbourne had a higher population than Sydney and a mere 15 years later was one of the richest cities in the world, 2nd only to London, England.

This was all thanks to the Gold rush that also buoyed Sydney, higher North in the state of New South Wales, but in the state of Victoria – of which Melbourne is the capital – there was an even wilder time.

Eventually the high times levelled off after a Depression a decade later, but Melbourne stayed prosperous – and now is poised to have the largest population of any Australian city by 2050, as its currently growing 18% faster than the rest.

I’m not sure how that will change the city. For the time being, Rose and I could only see Melbourne in 2014.

Here’s how it went.

We rented an apartment on the edge of the business district, which put us almost right next door to the first spot we went: Queen Victoria Market. It was a neat spot – where we saw a huge group of people lining up in front of a Turkish deli, clamouring for a specific food that I can’t remember – but was a bit like Pide ( breaded meat or cheese and meat).

Seeing a huge crowd we basically acted according to crowd-think, and lined right up with them, not really knowing at the time what we were getting in line for.

As it turns out, while I forget the name, I remember the taste being a bit disappointing – however the price was great: $2 per – which probably explained the large crowds.

Anyway, our next move was to do what everyone suggested: walk the laneways in the downtown core:

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Passing between graffittied walls:

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we invariably popped out to see another coffee shop – something we learned Melburnians are very proud – and a ton of cafes along the alleyways.

We settled on a Greek spot for dinner, which, I later learned was not all that difficult as Melbourne has the largest Greek speaking population outside Europe.

(Thanks Wikipedia)

The food was awesome and we carried on our way. In total we were in the city for a week and we got into a bit of a routine, wandering into the core, finding some alleyways then a spot to eat and roaming around some more.

Another spot that was hard to miss was Chinatown, which again thanks to el oro – is one of the oldest Chinatowns in the world as immigrants arrived in the thousands to find them shiny yella nuggets 150 years prior.

Sadly, our photographs are limited because I erased some by mistake thinking I had already saved them elsewhere. I know, not helpful to a blog.

Instead, you know that concept of a picture being a thousand words?

Can you think of it the other way? It’s asking a lot, I realize, but think it will make this go a lot better.

Ok.

Next we wandered out of the core and found the nearby neighbourhood of Fitzroy – which again, fellow travellers had recommended. It reminded me a lot of an area in Toronto: Queen West West and the Southern stretch of Ossington street. Cafes, art shops, bookstores, restaurants, stores big enough for rows of clothes but seem to only have six T-shirts, and brew pubs.

We wandered in to a brew pub – and who was at the door greeting us with samples of a beer? A fellow Canadian, happily perpetuating the stereotype of Canadians and beer of which our presence alone was also doing the same.

In principle we were trying to eat on a budget, but as in Sydney, costs weren’t necessarily the cheapest. Still, we did our best, often treating our cultural experiences as walking through the streets and avoiding the cost of the big museums like the National gallery.

However one splurge we did do was go to the Australian Museum of Moving Image (ACMI), which seems like a long title to get across the point that we won’t see any books on display.

Within, Mad Max’s car was on view (here’s an example I “borrowed”).

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Plus a history of the Australian film industry and some of its big actors including Melbourne’s own: Cate Blanchett.

I also learned in the museum that this video was shot in the city:

I like Ac/Dc. I’m not a diehard that’s combing newsgroups for 70s bootlegs and Ac/Dc dollars from their Razor’s Edge tour. But I plan to see them summer 2015 in Canada, and I’m fan enough that I wanted to see the lane dedicated to them in the city, which we walked past (again a borrowed image):

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Later on we saw a comedy show with headliner – Tom Gleeson – who, later on we’d learn was a friend of another Australian we met in Thailand. Different concert, but here’s some of the same material we saw:

Type in “Melbourne things to do” in Google and one of the biggest things that comes up is something that you have to drive outside of the city and carry on driving for 234 kilometres to get the most out of it: the Great Ocean Road

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It’s a pretty drive that we took four days to drive up and back on, which culminates in this popular view of what’s called the Twelve Apostles (one of the rocks over my shoulder):

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Maybe one of the biggest highlights was driving off the route into a group of eucalyptus trees. As we went, we kept spotting koalas one after the other. We must have driven six kilometres into the woods, keeping our eyes on the trees:

“Look there’s another – that’s 12”.

13.

15!

After coming back in our finally tally was 16 of the furry guys. It was pretty amazing.

Soon this would be the last cuddly looking thing we’d see for a long time. Our next stop, Kathmandu Nepal where we set off on a walk one day, and came back 20 days later.

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Sydney: Two Big Days Out

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Sydney is like the pretty, popular girl in high school who from afar some people think a ditz, but who is in fact sharp, intelligent and can handle herself just fine when you meet her.

In short, she’s an object of both envy and derision depending on one’s perspective. Clearly many people around the world are envious – as the expat population of the city is roughly 30%. Speaking with some people we met, there’s a joke that with all the expats in the city, Sydney has just become England with good weather.

But not everyone thinks so. Many residents of Melbourne are happy to take the other tact: citing its high costs, corporate cleanliness, and its “too pretty” look as reasons not to live there: which, given real estate costs in Sydney is already something only a rare few can afford.

However, Sydney didn’t arrive on the scene, out of the blue, as some bombshell ingenue who swept up her winning tiara after being incapable of having an unscripted thought after forgetting her script: “Like such as ….the Iraq…”

The city came into its own from its own hard work, from what has to be the most unprivileged upbringing one can imagine: it was a penal colony.

Botany Bay (now home to the Sydney airport) was first discovered in 1770 by James Cook. 18 years later England started ferrying its criminals to Australia – a criminal sentence that was labelled “transportation”. The First Fleet, as it was known, arrived in 1788 to discover that Botany Bay may not have been the greatest spot to start things off, so they sailed just a bit farther North to what was known as Port Jackson, but now Sydney Harbour.

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There it started where convicts tilled the land under some cruel wardens, while others were more merciful – until many were able to earn their freedom – then some land, and then became businessmen. Transportation ended in 1840 – at which time there was a viable settlement, doing well on its terms thanks to prisoners who, upon their release, had started businesses. In 1842, Sydney became Australia’s first city.

10 years later: GOLD!

There was a huge gold rush that nearly emptied the settlements, as the majority of people ran inland to get rich. It was a good risk for many: as they returned with their own private fortune. All this boded well for more development, and by 1901 Sydney was inaugurated into the Commonwealth, and had a population of 481,000.

Canadian content fact: Sydney got its name from Thomas Townsend who was credited with promoting the settlement at Port Jackson. Similarly, Sydney Nova Scotia was named after him as well – though for more ceremonial reasons, since Canada didn’t emerge from a penal colony, though its citizens might argue that during some winters it feels like one.

As Rose and I arrived in the city, one thing became abundantly clear: our backpacking budget wouldn’t stand a chance. Things were really riche – but we did our best. First off we found a “Free” walking tour of the city, which gave us an understanding of Sydney’s layout, taking us through the business district, around the edge of the harbour.

I say “Free”, because while there was no upfront fee, it was based on a tip you decided at the end of the walk. Some people didn’t wait that long, and bolted off without giving the guide a few bucks, which I thought was pretty crappy. Regardless, it was a decent way to get a sense of things, particularly the big icon of the city, the one that everyone brings to mind when they think of Sydney:

imageMuch like Sydney itself, I learned that the Opera House had its own history of hardship and tribulation. It all started in 1957, when the city of Sydney awarded Danish architect – Jorn Utzon – the winning design after they had put out the project to tender.

Construction started in 1959 and it was projected to be finished in 1963. While things never go exactly to plan, their plan was a kite in a hurricane. The material for the fans on the exterior of the Opera house were redrawn and re-engineered during a four year period, eventually being solved in 1963. Costs climbed, suppliers were lost, political parties changed and patience waned.

In 1966, Jorn Utzon resigned, saying the political leader of the day – Minister of Public Works, Davis Hughes was an intractable M’fer in his dealings and had essentially bullied him into a position where he thought the only sane thing to do was leave.

When all was said and done, it was 1973 – 10 years later than expected and 14 times the budget. Utzon wasn’t invited to the opening ceremony and his name was left unmentioned during the pomp.

Slowly, however, as the years passed, and Utzon went on to complete other architectural projects around the world, the political climate softened and he was invited to draw up the design principles for the Opera House. This would give other designers an understanding of how to do fixes or add things in the future if projects were to come up.

Soon after he was awarded the highest architectural award in the world for his body of work. A year later an interior room was named after him at the Opera House, which then brought him closer in to the fold, such that he designed an addition to the Opera House with his son – called the Colonnade.

His public redemption was complete, when in 2006, the Queen who in 1973 hadn’t said jack about him, now gushed praise on him for his lifetime of work in her speech at the opening ceremony for The Colonnade.

Publicly, he was back in the good books. Something for which, in private, it seemed he was never in doubt.

Anyhow, all is iconic on the outside of the Opera House. But what of the inside?

Rose and I decided to find out – getting tickets for the super high brow event of listening to the Sydney orchestra play Sci-fi anthems for a couple of hours.

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Star Wars, Lost in Space, Star Trek: there was a lot of material. And it was a lot of fun.

The rest of our time we spent at beaches in and around Sydney. First off, Manly beach – so named apparently from the Capt of the first fleet who, seeing the aborigines who lived there, found them masculine lads.

We toured around there, and to highlight how small our budget was in face of Sydney prices, this was lunch:

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Afterwards, we went to the most popular beach in Sydney, Bondi:

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There happened to be a kite festival going on, which was pretty neat, and we hung around there as long as we could, because loitering, thankfully, was free:

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– until eventually heading back to our budget living in the city.

All in all, I thought Sydney was really pretty. But, not to be outdone, and to be fair and balanced, our next stop was Melbourne. There we’d get a glimpse of Australia’s second biggest city, plus go for a drive down the Great Ocean Road to see some tree bears.

Talk soon

Uluru view

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We’re part of a backpacker tour headed to Uluru, what was once known as Ayer’s Rock – the rock that sits almost in the dead centre of Australia.

We’ve been driving for 5 hours, and have seen three things: red earth, dead trees, and road. On and on and on – the landscape is a permanent loop of three ingredients.

I’m beside myself with excitement when I spot something new:

“Did you see that tire?”, I say to Rose, as if I’ve just laid eyes on an ancient artifact.

“OMG. A beer bottle! You see it?”. I repeat this maybe once an hour – and Rose, when she’s not sleeping which is where I normally find her, replies:

“You could bury someone out here and they’d never be found”.

I look at her slowly, slightly concerned. “UM. Do you want to talk about something? Here. I’ll start things off: I think you may be reading too many serial killer crime novels”.

She smiles, and looks out the window at the horizon. Two minutes later, she’s pointing:

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“There it is!”.

It’s an amazing sight, I think made more remarkable from the absence of everything around it. Out of miles of red earth, as flat as a frying pan, a huge massive blob rises, sitting there looking like a football (the American version) designed for giants.

The thing is: while of course everyone is busy clicking away with their cameras, the images can’t convey the transition in the landscape from nothing to a huge something. There’s no signs or hints there’s a rock coming, then Ta-da. Where the hell did this thing come from?

As we approach, we also learn it’s not alone. An adjacent rock formation is equally amazing to see: called Kata Juta – it sits a few kilometres away from Uluru, and has the appearance of a series of spaceships.

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Our tour is a three day deal, where we’ll walk around both Kata Juta, Uluru, and another outcropping called King’s Canyon. Both nights we’ll sleep under the stars in the outback version of a sleeping bag – a Swag – basically a canvas body bag that holds a sleeping bag.

On our first night out under the stars, our tour guide, seeing that our entire group had no idea what they were doing, decided to have some fun for himself. As we all laid out our Swags, people began asking, if there were snakes and dingos around. After hearing some howls in the distance, one question was answered, which then left snakes.

Our guide then explained, if each one of us took a stick and drew a line around our Swag, we’d create an uneven piece of dirt, which a snake would notice and retreat from. Everyone looked at each other, wondering if it was a load – some even openly critical: “Should we chant as we do it?”.

Yet, for all the criticism, the amazing part was that everyone did it, even as they complained they didn’t think it was accurate – no one wanted to take anything for granted.

Once everyone had drawn lines around their Swags, our guide went for the icing: “If you’re really worried about it, you could sprinkle salt around your Swag to also keep scorpions away”.

Immediately, in one fell swoop, the entire group traded in their critical faculties for a salt container, and poured it around their Swag. To an outside observer, each person’s sleeping spot now looked like a shrine or the site of a voodoo ritual with a body bag surrounded by a halo of markings in the earth and a moat of salt.

It wasn’t until the next morning that we realized we were a punchline. After we kicked away our salt lines after breakfast, to preserve the joke for future tours, we headed to King’s Canyon – a red rock outcropping that reminded me of images I’d seen of the Western US (Arkansas, Nevada). The views were phenomenal:

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We were out for three hours, and it was ultimately an exercise in taking home poster photographs. You could more or less point your camera in any direction and come up with an amazing piece of earth or odd formation:

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After touring the Canyon, we headed to the first of the two main events the next day, bright and early to beat the sun: Kata Juta. Immediately, as we approached, I couldn’t believe the scale of it:

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It’s so big that I found sitting between these huge formations, while walking across red earth, felt like we were in our own Mars landscape – with the one exception of a blue sky that was so deeply blue and rich, it almost seemed like a Pantone colour.

But, the big draw, even though it’s not the same size as Kata Juta is of course Uluru. And, it didn’t disappoint. Up close, I thought it was even more impressive. We set out and walked around it’s base, which, to give you an idea of its size, is 10km.

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And, side after side revealed something unique, including various spots where you can see Aborigine cave drawings, and other sacred spots where they continue to hold rituals today.

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Interestingly, it’s not merely the name change of the rock back to its Aboriginal name that is the only instance where cultures seem to be crossing, and in some ways creating tension. On paper, Uluru is Aboriginal land, and they’ve leased it to the Australian government for 99 years, allowing tourists to see it.

However, as part of this deal, the Australian government also allows people to climb the rock, while Aboriginal groups oppose it – and have huge signs at the entrance to the climb, asking people to reconsider and respect the spot as being sacred ground. Yet, tour group after group bypass the sign and wander up – which is no small feat, since the pitch is really steep. Apparently 37 people have died climbing it – but it continues, despite this and despite Aboriginal opposition. (note the guy below wearing “Just Do It” shirt at the entrance to the climb, who’s holding his back, seemingly reconsidering Nike’s advice)

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It’s a weird scenario – since the Australian government is saying it’s okay. The more conscientious tour organizers side with the Aborigines and don’t encourage their groups to climb up, even though it’s sanctioned as being okay by the caretakers of it (Aus Gov’t).

In any case, Uluru itself was amazing to see, and while I’d initially said going out that, I’m sure I’d never go back – I’m not so sure. I wouldn’t mind seeing it again.

And that brings us back to our furry friends. On our first night in a hostel in Alice Springs, we heard something about a wallabie feeding area. We wandered over, and it turned out – there was an area where wild wallabies, come down at dusk off the mountain, looking for food. It was really cool – they lined the hills and bounded down, one after the other and in unison, allowing us to feed them.

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Later that night, we walked back and spotted some kangaroo bouncing around the edge as well.

That soon brought an end to our red earth and rock experience – next we were headed to a land of asphalt, glass towers and symphony orchestras. While Canada boasts a hockey player of the same name who’s made an impact on the international stage, Australia’s city attracts people from around the world, which after a few days there, was easy to see why.

Next stop Sydney.