Sunday, 6 May 2012

Climate change – but only in Australia

It's another beautiful day in Sydney, so I pack away the jumper and trousers and decide on summer attire for my last morning in New South Wales and for my journey to Victoria.
There's a lovely walk around Marrickville Golf Course beside the Cook River.

I don't think I have ever heard so many birds twittering and calling. Ibis are everywhere; the Aussies rather regard them as flying rats.
As I walk back up the hill to the house, two plain-clothes police officers are in the process of arresting a guy, his hands on his car as one of the policemen search him.

Liz has kindly made me some sandwiches – or 'sambos' as she calls them – for my journey. They are, of course, not your normal butties. Duck and mushroom for one and bacon, lettuce and tomato for the other.
At Sydney Domestic terminal, there is a huge queue at Jetstar and I seem to be one of the few people who has bothered to check in online and tag my bags at the automatic machines. As a result, the bag drop is totally clogged up. So I boldly walk past a large group of beefy Aussie Rules professional footballers and straight to a desk.
Bruce weighs my luggage, including my two carry on bags. 'You are 7 kilos over your allowance, we charge that at the airport at $15 dollars a kilo.
$105! That's as much as I have paid for my ticket, 40 kilos of luggage and my seat. Crikey! I explain about my round the world exploits, hand over my Travel Writer business cards and say a silent prayer. Bruce goes off to see a supervisor and returns with the news that they are not budging. But suddenly, he seems to take pity on me, hands me my boarding passes and wishes me a pleasant journey.
But the message is very clear. If you have more luggage than you have paid for, Jetstar will charge you. The 'no frills' airlines make a lot of money out of excess baggage; it's one of the ways they keep their lead-in fares lower than scheduled carriers.

I am in my normal 1A seat on Jetstar's very new Airbus A320. It has very comfortable leather seats and the first row is set back from the door. So you don't get trampled by boarding passengers and the legroom is not restricted by the door slide.
The flight is packed, but it's actually a very pleasant journey. One of the cabin crew is especially keen to please; she's being checked out by an extra staff member for a more senior position.
At Melbourne, the bags arrive quicker than if they had been priority tagged. Within moments, I am met by Diana Robertson, who was my school penpal and her partner Malcolm Hackett.

We are just dropping my luggage at the splendid Cantala B&B in the northern suburb of Eltham before heading to their temporary accommodation. They lost their house and much else in the dreadful bush fires of February 7 2009. Google 'Black Saturday bushfires' and you will get the full information.

We are headed to the local community hall in Strathewen, where there's a pizza evening and children's talent contest. The state of the art hall was donated after the bush fires by property develop Australand and their suppliers. The evening is great fun, with a couple of pretty impressive turns. What is not on show is the trauma that many folk still feel more than two years after the local school, village hall, fire station and 173 lives, 27 of them in Strathewen alone, were lost.

In the morning I take the train into Melbourne. A day Metrocard for unlimited use on the trains, buses and trams costs just $11, which is amazing value as the single ticket for the hour-long journey to Melbourne would alone be $8.
There is so much to see and do. 

Diana meets me in the city centre and we take the free city circle tram, which runs every twelve minutes. It's a great way of orientating yourself, and with one going in the opposite direction, it's an easy way of getting to most of the main sights. There is also a less publicised tourist shuttle bus which runs every 30 minutes, which is also free.

Waterfront City in the old docklands area is supposedly the 'happening' place in town. But it's not my cup of tea. Lots of shopping and places to eat, if you like that sort of thing. But to my mind, it's pretty soulless. The controversial Southern Star big wheel is also there. Opened amid big hype at the end of 2008, it closed just a month later with structural problems. After three years, a new version, along the lines of London's Big Eye and the Singapore Flyer is being constructed.

On the tram, we have learned about the William Angliss Institute, where 7,000 students learn about the catering and hospitality industries. We enjoy an excellent lunch in the Bistro, one of the two training restaurants, although the young chef of the day is at a loss to explain why my twice-baked souffle has developed a pie-like crust! But you can't fault the attention to detail of the students, who come from all over to learn at one of Australia's most prestigious catering hospitality colleges.

The Eureka Skydeck 88 features the 'fastest lift and the highest public vantage point in the Southern Hemisphere'. The tallest building, which must irk them, is in fact Auckland's Sky Tower, but the Kiwi observation deck is lower, hence the claim. Skydeck costs $17.50 for adults.

At almost 300 metres above the ground, it certainly does give you a wonderful view of the Melbourne city and suburbs. A special (and $12 extra) feature is 'The Edge', a glass box which actually takes you outside the building and above the street far below. But I find the rather contrived creaking and thunder effects spoil the overall experience. Cameras are, rather frustratingly, not allowed inside. Why? Because they charge you another $15 if you want to buy the one taken from their camera.

At the Young & Jackson Hotel opposite Flinders Street Station, we meet Chloe Breakwell, who I first met as a 12 year old on Lord Howe Island. Ten years later, she's studying veterinary science at Trinity College. The venue for our pre-event meal has been chosen because Chloe took her name from a famous painting in the hotel, which she has never seen.

In the evening, off to see my first ever Aussie-Rules football at the Etihad Stadium. The match, between Melbourne rivals Bulldogs and Collingwood, is fast, furious and great fun. Leg room is less than generous though. A man behind us, recently retired as a foghorn, feels the referee is being less than supportive to his team and 'you maggot' is only one of his many high-decibel reposts.
Cantala B&B is in Eltham, an hour or so from the city by the Metro suburban train. The delightful 1930's house is set in lovely gardens. It's only 10 minutes away from the railway station, but it's a pretty hilly walk back.
The transport bargain of the century has to be the $3.30 cost of Melbourne's weekend day ticket. You have to pay an initial $6 for a myki pass, which is replacing the old Metcard, to obtain the bargain, but it really is unbelievable value.

I while away most of Saturday morning at the excellent Queen Victoria Market, open on Tuesday and Thursday-Sunday. The produce market is very much geared to meet the needs of Melbourne's multinational residents while bargains abound in the vast covered area which houses around 1000 traders.

I am amazed that entry to the Australian Centre of the Moving Image, housed in striking buildings at Federation Square, is free. Especially as their permanent exhibition, 'Screen Worlds', is a truly remarkable presentation of film, television and digital culture. I spend a couple of hours marvelling at the extraordinarily clever ways that were used 100 years ago to make images move. I could have spent a lot more time seeing impressive presentations about iconic Australian films such as Walkabout and TV programmes like 'Skippy'. I absolutely love it. The futuristic building also houses prestigious visiting exhibitions (William Kentridge during my visit) and two cinemas showing a wide range of documentaries and films not on general release.

Back at Eltham, I enjoy some excellent fish and chips, only discovering later that the tasty white 'Flake' is actually shark meat.

The Bylands Tramway Heritage Centre is an hour's drive north of Melbourne. It's only open on Sundays, but well worth a visit if you are, like me, interested in public transport. It houses a huge collection of old trams from Melbourne, Ballarat and Geelong. Sadly, many of the vehicles, some of which date back 100 years, are in need of rather more restoration than a non-profit organisation can afford to give. It's also sad that they are currently, owing to health and safety rules, not able to offer trips on their little bit of working track.

On the way back to Malcolm and Diana's temporary home, we stop at a $300,000 memorial being contructed in Strathewen in memory of the locals who lost their lives in the 'Black Saturday' bush-fires of 2009. I find the words, written by the survivors, intensely moving and it will be a wonderful tribute to those who perished in the flames.

Nearby, a clutch of ceramic letter boxes, made by villagers as one of many projects undertaken to try and help them cope with the tragedy of that awful day.
But we also pass the newly constructed school, the village hall which will open later this year and the splendid sports pavilion, cricket oval and tennis courts built from funds donated by Australian companies.
Just like the undergrowth and the wildlife, things in Strathewen are slowly but surely getting back to something like normality.