Making friends with Melbourne

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Back in 2010, I had a casual girlfriend who each week worked a few extra hours of flexitime and saved up all her bank holidays and annual leave to give her a full two months off in one chunk to backpack round the world. Literally.

I said I’d join her for ten days wherever she happened to be when my project finished, which turned out to be Australia …

We were staying at an ‘apartment hotel’ in the south of the city. ‘Apartment’ translated to ‘hotel room with a sink, fridge, kettle and toaster’, but it was clean, had free wifi and was a 10-minute tram ride from the city centre.

There was a fun-run on when I arrived, which meant trams weren’t running north-south, so I had to walk a couple of miles from the airport bus terminus. This might have been quite pleasant but for the leather jacket I’d had to wear for the chilly night temperature when I’d left London, but a quick shower and change into more appropriate clothing and I headed back into the city. The fun-run had just finished, leaving only this headless Chinese lion as evidence:

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I’d arrived in the morning and Irmina was arriving in the afternoon, giving me a bit of time to wander round.

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Flinders Street station uses this cute clocks system to show you the time of the next train on each line.

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I was in Australia for 10 days, and had my usual carry-on roller-bag plus small camera bag. Irmina was doing a two-month round-the-world backpacking trip and arrived with the mandatory backpack the size of a truck, plus three other bags! Admittedly she needed to be ready for a variety of weathers. We dropped her luggage back at the hotel, and once she’d showered and changed headed to the Docklands.

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She’d wanted a new camera for her trip, so on my advice bought a D90 with 18-200mm lens in Hong Kong. It has the compromises you’d expect, but I’d played with it on my father’s camera, and for a consumer lens with such a massively wide focal range, it’s pretty decent. The main benefit for Irmina is that one lens does it all.

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We found a rather lovely sculpture.

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And, er, a cow in a tree.

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We had dinner at a restaurant near Princes Bridge. The terrible exchange rate meant most things were expensive, but there was one exception:

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I can report that an excellent bottle of Australian Shiraz tastes even better in shirt sleeves in the open air at 9pm in March.

We were feeling a bit tipsy tired after that, so took a cab back to the hotel. The cabbie lives in Melbourne, drives a cab for a living and has a GPS on his dash. I’m a Brit on his first visit to the continent and who arrived in the city that day. Fortunately I’d been paying attention so was able to give the cabbie the directions he requested. It was like being in NYC …

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We’d bought breakfast things the previous day, so day two began with a leisurely breakfast before venturing out. First stop was the Melbourne Arts Centre.

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Followed by the magnificent State Library.

I wanted to get a shot of the reading room from the top floor, and Irmina has a dodgy knee, so we decided to take the lift. The lift system is slightly confusing: entering by the main doors, you take one lift from the ground floor, which is labelled the 2nd floor, as there’s a lower level accessible from a different entrance, to the 4th floor. You then walk 180 degrees to the opposite side of the dome and take a second lift to the 6th floor. In this second lift, we met two Australian visitors who were unsuccessfully attempting to reach the ground floor. We gave them instructions, but they didn’t seem too confident, so may well still be there now.

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Very cleverly, they’ve retained the view of the reading room from the top of the dome while hiding away on the ground/2nd floor all the PCs and laptop stations.

I wanted to pick up a cheap tripod for the night shots from the Eureka Tower. I’d looked on the web and found a rental shop, but as that was $30 for two days, I figured buying a cheap one would cost no more and be less hassle as we wouldn’t have to return it. This was indeed the case, and I picked one up for $26 (about £16).

While in the shopping centre, we happened on a fashion show being run by the clothing stores in it. The show was a good one, using a set they’d created on a stage instead of a boring catwalk. I wasn’t so sure about the ‘human robot’ start to it, though. As usual, carrying a big camera and looking like I belonged there got me into some good spots.

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The Eureka Tower is the tallest building in the southern hemisphere. Our plan for the evening was to visit the Skydeck on the 88th floor shortly before sunset and stay until it got dark, so we could enjoy the daylight, sunset and night views. I put the 10-20mm lens on for this trip.

Sunset was 7.10pm, so we headed into the tower at 6.30pm.

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We got there in time to enjoy a stroll around the whole floor, for 360-degree views, before setting up the tripod and staking out the best seats in the house for the sunset.

One challenge was all the reflections on the inside of the glass. I borrowed a black bin-liner from a cleaner to cover the tripod legs, but there was nothing I could do about the interior lighting once it got dark.

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We then took a short stroll along the South Bank before dinner at a very nice Italian restaurant with views of the river.

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On day three, we went to the tourist info office to find out where to hire bicycles. One of the staff was showing another visitor how to get somewhere on the large map on the wall. Or, rather, he wasn’t because he couldn’t spot the ‘You are here’ sign. Clearly had the same geography teacher as the cabbie. I helpfully showed him where he worked.

They did at least know where the bike rental place was, just around the corner. Gotta love rental bikes: ride down grass banks, over kerbs, down steps …

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After we’d ridden along the river heading out of the city, we rode back along the South Bank. Mostly I was using that section of the ride to recce places I wanted to photograph after dark.

We also took the City Circle tram, which does a lap of the city complete with tourist commentary. They use their oldest trams for this, which are lovely brass and wood affairs, but lots of tourists and no aircon in 31C temps has its downside.

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Back to the hotel for cold showers and cold drinks before heading back out to walk along the South Bank after dark. Melbourne has a lot of funky bridges, and two of them look better at night than in the day. The Webb Bridge:

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And the Convention Centre bridge:

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We did, though, discover the hard way that Melbourne closes at 11pm. The only two places left open to eat were a McDonalds and a not-very-appetising looking Chinese. We opted for the latter, but I think even a McD’s would have been tastier.

Day four was an exceedingly lazy day. We took a tram down to St Kilda beach.

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We wandered a little, but must confess to spending almost the entire day in swing chairs in a beach bar.

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Excellent food & wine too. I was thinking of nipping back to the hotel to fetch our luggage and then moving in.

Day five began with a fire alarm. We were fortunately already awake so only had to pull on some clothes and make our way to the fire escape, which is conveniently right next to our room. The cleaners were still making up the room opposite. I stood in the fire escape doorway and asked them whether it was a drill.

“I don’t know,” she replied, “I’ll go and find out.” And did so by taking the lift. A fire engine arrived, but they said they’d been told the small fire was already out so they were just making a check.

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It turned out to be a pan fire caused by the receptionist frying some eggs and then forgetting she was doing so.

It always amazes me the way people will ignore fire-alarms, but perhaps I’m influenced by the work I did at Eurotunnel, which included a briefing by Kent Fire Brigade. They said that a high proportion of those who died in large building fires did so simply because they failed to exit the building as soon as the alarm sounded – and sometimes ten seconds was the difference between those who lived and those who died.

After a wader around the Victoria Street Market and brunch at a market cafe, we headed out to Melbourne Zoo for the afternoon. The Rough Guide reckoned it has “a bushland setting, where you can walk among emus, kangeroos and wallabies.” I reckon their reviewer was stoned at the time. The reality is a very artificial-looking environment with a few scrawny-looking specimens. We didn’t stay long.

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For dinner, I had a cunning plan. The Eureka Tower has a terrifyingly expensive restaurant on the 89th floor. It also has the Skydeck on the 88th floor with no bag-check and a seeming absence of jobsworths (no-one objected to me setting up a tripod, for example).

So, one shopping trip later, we had a packed dinner, a bottle of Shiraz and two glasses (rather colourfully and grainily portrayed here thanks to low light levels that mostly comprised coloured lights) – and the best table in town!

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Pudding was a couple of absolutely amazing lemon cakes. They were kind of lemon tarts in cup-cake form.

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I can’t imagine getting away with a DIY dinner with wine on the skydeck in too many countries, but Australia is a relaxed place.

Day six involved much lazing and just a few photos.

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Now, picture the scene in London. A tourist asks a London bus driver if he knows where somewhere is. The driver has never heard of it. Does he (a) shrug and grunt or (b) get out of his cab, fetch a map and then stand on the pavement studying the map before showing them where it is and explaining exactly how to get there?

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Yarra tram drivers must be about the friendliest in the world. We’d already noticed that, when someone is running for a tram, they wait. Even if they’ve pulled away, if they spot someone running in their mirrors, they stop and open the doors for them. If a tram is sat at red lights and someone wants to get on, they open the doors and let them. TfL, please take lessons!

Day seven was our last day in Melbourne. We’d seen everything we wanted to see, so headed back to St Kilda Beach for another lazy day.

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Luna Park is an amusement park on the beachfront that opened in 1929. The original wooden roller-coaster is still running.

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It was a Saturday, so busier, but amazingly our swing chairs were still free. We spent much of the day there.

There was one last place we needed to visit: Ackland Street, famous for its cake shops!

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As a founder member of the Cake Liberation Front, I hate the idea of keeping cakes in captivity, so we liberated a couple. Sadly, the cakes did not survive the rescue.

Then back to the South Bank for dinner: kangeroo steak. Sorry, Skippy. And that was Melbourne. The following morning, it was back to Sydney where we had a day and a half before Irmina flew on to Peru for the next leg of her round-the-world trip and I flew home via Hong Kong.

March 2010

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