Sunday, 27 March 2011

14. In a blur from Asia to the South Pacific

Changi Airport

Colonial Tramcar Restaurant, Melbourne

Diana Robertson making an important choice

City Tempo Apartment, Melbourne

Chloe Breakwell and Mike Souter

Melbourne Metro

Feet on the Melbourne Metro seats

Currawong Blue B and B

Bush Fire sprinkler

Chandon Vineyard restaurant

Mike's hat among the laundry

Vines being protected from birds

Diana and Malcolm's temporary accommodation

air New Zealand B777-200 Business Class

Air New Zealand Business Class lounge

Norfolk Island Airport

Mike Souter at Emily Bay, Norfolk Island
There’s so much in Singapore to see but I really do need a morning to get organised. I have been away from home for over three weeks and I need to sort out paperwork, repack my bags and, importantly, to do some ironing.
I finish early enough to have time to take an aerial view of the harbour by cable car. But when I get there, nobody seems to know about me and, even when I proffer my press card and the visiting card of my host, the Spanish inquisition ensues and so I decide not to bother.
So I take the MRT back to Little India where I enjoy a splendid lunch at Komala Vilas vegetarian Indian Restaurant. ( I reckon that, as it has been in business since 1947, it should be OK. And it turns out to be. I enjoy some very tasty and authentic food, which is unbelievably cheap. My mango lassi is simply divine.
I realise that I am the only non Indian eating and I am the only one using a fork rather than his hand.
In the late afternoon, I do a bit of window shopping and visit the Singapore Cruise Centre to watch the fast ferries on the forty minute journey to and from Indonesia.
Callum joins me for a farewell swim and a final glass of wine at the Shangri-La. I am very touched that Evelyn from guest relations and Ben the general manager, both of whom are off-duty, take the time and trouble to wish me a safe onward journey. The hotel and its staff have been absolutely splendid and most hospitable.
The limo drops Callum off on the way to the airport, the lady driver telling me about her husband being in hospital after suffering a serious stroke, something her teenage son is taking especially hard.
Check in and other formalities at Changi is remarkably stress-free and I am in the Singapore Airlines’ lounge only 15 minutes after arriving at the airport. The award-winning lounge offers a splendid selection of food and I enjoy an absolutely first class meal which includes lamb stew and Tasmanian cheese, before boarding the plane.
For the first time ever, I don’t even have a drink on board, turn down the offered dinner, request eye shades and earplugs and, with a midnight departure, try to get some sleep. The man behind me has been playing with something electronic which has an annoying beep every time he presses a key, but mercifully he has stopped. Why do people not have any thought to others as they bawl into their mobile phones and play with their gadgets?
I an expecting Singapore Airlines’ business class to be one of the best I would experience, but I reckon they have neglected their older fleet and invested just in their A380’s. The seat is so sloping that I have to reduce the angle to attain any sort of comfort. In the morning, I note that the man next to me has opted simply to have a slight recline. The breakfast – and the overall experience of the airline – is very disappointing.
As a ‘valued customer’ I am given a pass for Express arrivals, but there is no guidance as to where it is and, for the first time in almost a month of travelling, I join a queue to enter a country.
Australia and New Zealand are very strict on the importation of foodstuffs and there are hefty fines if you fail to declare anything. So I have prepared a bag with even the smallest of my edibles just in case.
I am met at Melbourne Airport by my Australian pen pal for over twenty years from my primary school days, Diana Robertson and her partner, Malcolm Hackett. I’ve only met them once before, when they came to Norfolk in the 1980’s. We’d lost touch in recent years, but I had placed a notice in one of the local Sunday papers and she got in touch the same day.
Malcolm kindly drives me on a route round the city so that I can see some of the splendid parks and historic architecture. I remark that I think it rather looks like my home town, Glasgow. But that may have been largely because it is pouring with rain. I am booked in for one night at City Tempo (, some new short stay apartments. I am pretty lucky to have got a room, because it’s Australian Grand Prix weekend and almost everywhere is booked solid.
I am impressed with the facilities. Each self-contained little unit has everything you could possibly want for self catering, including a mini dishwasher. A nice little touch is that there’s a small carton of fresh milk in the fridge to go with the complimentary tea and coffee. It’s a bit short of power points at the desk, but they seem to have thought of everything else.
But there’s no time to linger. I have a quick shower before heading off with Diana to the Colonial Tramcar Restaurant. Due to the Grand Prix, we have to walk in the rain to a different departure point than that advertised and it seems odd that the thirty or so guests could not have been advised of the change.
However, that’s a minor criticism. The four course luncheon is splendid, beautifully served by Gerhard and perfectly cooked by John. Dutchman Gerhard is pleased that I use the term Netherlands, rather than Holland where I ask him where he is from. Both Diana and I indulge enthusiastically in both the food and the excellent wines from Victoria.
The incessant rain does nothing to stop our enjoyment although neither of us has all that much of an idea where we actually have been.
Diana leaves for home, leaving me to explore the city with my Metcard, which for just $7 Australian, gives me unlimited travel round zone one, which goes well to the suburbs.
Having lived in Norfolk for over thirty years, I decide to go out to Sandringham, where the Queen lives at Christmas. In Norfolk, not in Melbourne. I get off at Windsor, where the Queen also lives. Further on our route, we pass through Brighton. Where Prince Albert liked to live. It’s all very confusing.
On the way back, the train gets busy, which seems odd, because the commuters should all be heading out of town. At Richmond, they all get out, leaving just the man across the aisle and me in the entire carriage. ‘Looks like we’re the only two not going to the footy,’ says he. It turns out that the station serves the MCG, where tonight is the opening game of the Aussie rules football season between Carlton and Richmond.
It turns out the man’s father used to be the Australian manager for Norwich Union insurance in the late 1960’s and he is amazed when I told him that my first job at the BBC was less than 200 metres from the company’s head office. It’s a small world indeed.
I have a beer at Australia’s oldest Irish Club, the Celtic Club, which was established in 1887 and a very decent bite at a nearby restaurant.
In the morning, after a nine hour sleep, reception calls to tell me I have a young lady to see me. I must have drunk more than I realised last night.
No, only joking, this is Chloe Breakwell, who I first met when I was on Naval Reserve Duty on Lord Howe Island some nine years ago. Now she is 21, and just off the Yarra River where she has been having an early morning row with the Melbourne University Club. With oars, not an argument.
Over an excellent egg and bacon muffin breakfast, Chloe tells me she is at Trinity College, studying for a doctorate in veterinary science. Her brain and local knowledge was useful in helping me order a coffee from a bewilderingly confusing list. I opt for a flat white which I think means a milky coffee.
I am thrilled that Chloe is doing so well and make her promise she will visit me when will both be in England in the summer. Apart from anything, having a tall beautiful blonde staying with me in a rural Norfolk village will be great for local gossip! Perhaps I should start the rumours myself…
The weather yesterday rather curtailed what should have been my sightseeing afternoon in Melbourne, but I know I’ll be back.
Today’s schedule means an early journey to Hurstbridge. The 90 minute journey costs just $6 AUS (4 GBP), which I think is truly amazing value. On the way, I am surprised at the graffiti around and also how many adults put their feet on the seats. It wouldn’t happen in Singapore.
There are some great station names on the Metlink network. I can go to Sandown Park, Tottenham or Chelsea. When they ran out of place names in England, they came up with Balaclava and Ivanhoe before just opting for silly nouns like aircraft, officer and batman.
Malcolm and Diana meet me bang on schedule at Hurstbridge, despite some quite long waits due to single line working.
We drop my bags at the Currawong Blue B and B in Panton Hill ( which looks absolutely splendid. I have my own en suite room, with a separate sitting room, kitchen and breakfast room. It’s beautifully and quietly situated and I so wish I could spend more time here.
We take a tour round the garden, where huge water tanks and a sprinkler system will be used in the event of bush fires. Just over two years ago, Malcolm and Diana lost their home, a beloved dog and all but some tax files, their laptops and the clothes they were wearing when after 10 days of the temperature being over 40 degrees, the conflagration of 7 February 2009 swept through their 230 acre Strathewen property. But they can consider themselves lucky. Out of 220 people in their local community, 27 lost their lives. In the wider area, 173 people died. The Bush Fires of 2009 were so catastrophic that the fire risk scale on which 100 was previously the most serious, reached an unprecedented 280.
The pair, both retired teachers, are closely involved with efforts to support and rebuild the local community. There’s now a new $3.5M Aus school for just 40 local children, a community centre in the pipeline and a book, ‘Footsteps in the Ash’, in which local people tell their moving and often horrific stories.
It’s at times like this we can only marvel at indomitable human spirit in the face of adversity.

The nearby Yarra Valley is full of vineyards and we opt to visit Chandon ( I am concerned that Monsieur Moet will be less than thrilled that some upstart Aussies have stolen his brand, but it’s OK. It’s his first antipodean adventure and jolly fine it is too. The adjoining restaurant is beautifully sited overlooking the vines, a lake and some grazing Angus cattle. We opt for platters of cheese and meat with a glass or two of the liquid product, which all goes down very well indeed.
Near Coldstream, we pass Dame Nellie Melba’s House. I like both her toast and her dessert.
In the evening, we enjoy an excellent dinner at Mercer’s Restaurant in Eltham (, where I have the best bit of steak I have had in many a long year.
Back at Melbourne Airport, Air New Zealand’s Express check in makes the processing totally painless and I am in the airline’s most excellent lounge only 15 minutes after being dropped off by Diana.
The Air New Zealand B777-200 is, by far, the best business cabin I have had so far. With a design used only by them and Virgin, you actually get a little cocoon, which features a totally flat 6’2” bed and a great deal of privacy. You take off and land slightly sideways which was fine for me, but I know is not liked by some.
The ‘Air Show’ includes a virtual cockpit view, which I have not seen before. There’s an excellent safety briefing, which includes a cuddly character to make the normally dull presentation both informative and entertaining.
Dylan, the flight service manager and his team of Geoff and Dan are quite superb, doing their jobs with humour and professionalism. The meal, which includes lamb shank, accompanied by an excellent 2007 Hawkes Bay Gimblett Gravels and wonderful ice cream with a really good 2009 Malborough Forrest Botrysided Riesling.
The cabin, service and catering are as good an airline experience as I have had for many a long year.
I have a brief overnight stopover in Auckland before my two-hour Sunday morning flight to Norfolk Island.
Air New Zealand’s check in and lounge is again excellent although the flight crew are not a patch on the team yesterday. Maxine, especially, has forgotten how to smile. I ask her if she’s been brought in from standby, but apparently not.
There’s not a full business class service on the route, but I am given a new product called Works Deluxe, which is everything but the legroom. My Star Alliance priority luggage comes off almost last. I mention this to the Air New Zealand lady at arrivals who, as she sweeps two unaccompanied minors in front of me in the immigration queue, tells me it's an Auckland issue!
On Norfolk Island, I am met by Mike Collings, boss of the local weather station, who I first met on Lord Howe Island in 2002.
After a visit to the local Sunday market, he gives me a whistle stop tour of the Island where many of the descendants of the Bounty mutineers ended up and to where many British convicts were transported.
It looks absolutely gorgeous and my next blog will go into detail about my week in the South Pacific.

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