We reached Melbourne on 29 October, and I’m sorry to say our first impression of Australia’s second largest city, population 4.8 million, was not favorable. It’s not that we automatically dislike big cities. We loved Brisbane, Sydney and Canberra, and for our stay in Melbourne we had booked a centrally located motel so we had comfy lodgings and a hot shower to look forward to. But the mash of traffic began well outside the downtown district, and a drive that GPS said would take an hour and twenty minutes crawled for three hours. Our mood, therefore, was not exactly buoyant when we finally checked in and set out for a walk.
Aside from the astounding Flinders train station, built in 1910, the architecture we passed was modern and ordinary—sometimes modern and stupid—with more of the same being noisily erected left and right. The “heart” of the city, Federation Square, turned out to be a bare brick plaza with oddly shaped museum buildings, one of them closed long-term due to more construction underway. The streets and sidewalks were crowded, and though it is common these days to see pedestrians consumed by their phones and holding conversations with the air, in Melbourne it amounts to overkill. As matter of curiosity, I made a rough estimate that 7 out of 10 people walking toward us had a phone in hand and/or a tiny white wire poking out of their ear. Almost no one made eye contact. It felt like we were walking through a city of zombies.
The next day, determined to find something about Melbourne to like, we hopped on the free inner-city tram—which does deserve applause—and got off at the Bourke Street Mall. This pedestrian mall in the heart of the business district is where serious shopping gets done, and the star of the show is the elegant Royal Arcade. Opened in 1870, its glass and wrought iron ceiling floods the interior with light, and a magnificent clock flanked by the figures of mythical giants Gog and Magog chimes the hours. It was easy to imagine stylish ladies in bustle dresses buying hats and gloves while their gentlemen escorts dutifully juggled an armful of packages stacked up to their chins. We stuck to window shopping, a treat in itself.
A few tram stops later we landed at the imposing Old Treasury Building. Melbourne was born as a result of the gold rush that erupted in Victoria in 1851 with some spectacular finds. Approximately four million troy ounces (62 tonnes) was mined the first year, and the population exploded with gold-fever immigrants pouring in from all over the world. The city was quickly dubbed “Marvellous Melbourne,” and the Treasury was built to store the gold. As with most gold rushes, gambling, alcohol and prostitution were rampant, and there were far more losers than big winners. Along with that fascinating history, another exhibit at the Old Treasury told the story of the decades-long project to build mammoth St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which we visited later that day.
But there was more to the Old Treasury, which was rapidly turning out to be, for us, Melbourne’s most redeeming feature. We read every story in an exhibit titled “Wayward Women?” about females who made headlines in Melbourne in the 1890s and early 1900s. Among them were bold suffragettes, a wealthy brothel keeper, murderesses, and two young girls, aged 11 and 12, who were sent out to beg by their impoverished mothers. The girls were abused by men who paid them a penny for sex, yet it was the children who were sent away to a reform school for being “immoral.” The exhibit ended with a list of reforms that came about for women and children as result of such experiences, including the right to vote and support for widows and orphans.
The most enlightening exhibit in the Old Treasury concerned the conscription referendums during World War I. At the war’s start, the government had the right to conscript men for self-defense within Australia but not to send them overseas. No worries—in a flurry of patriotism, young men readily volunteered to go. Then they began to get killed, maimed and wounded in appalling numbers—think Gallipoli—and enlistments dried up. So in 1916, Prime Minister Billy Hughes called for a vote to extend conscription to overseas assignments. He and all the newspapers were in favor of it; workers’ and women’s groups were opposed. The latter coalition pointed out that while Aussie farm boys were fighting and dying halfway around the world, the fat cats were sitting home getting richer and fatter. Sound familiar? Hughes tried to suppress the “anti” campaign, but when it came to the vote, the No’s won. When Hughes tried to push through conscription again the next year, the No vote was even larger. If this information is included at the huge war memorials in Sydney and Canberra, we missed it. To have this added perspective was important.
One other stop, Fitzroy Park, yielded two small pleasures. The first was a model Tudor village given by the city of Lambeth, England, in appreciation of Melbourne’s generosity in sending food to Britain during WWII. The second was Cook’s Cottage, built by the parents of Capt. James Cook in Yorkshire in 1755. Although the famous navigator himself never lived here, an Aussie philanthropist and admirer of Cook thought it worthwhile to have the structure disassembled and transferred brick by brick to Melbourne in 1934. The park itself was a spacious and soothing antidote to the commercialism of the city, and we had an engaging park bench conversation with an urban planner who was working on a project to relieve traffic flow. He told us that 1 million people commute into Melbourne to work each day and that the population is expected to reach 8 million by 2050. No thanks. Though we left Melbourne the following day with our overall impression lifted, we don’t feel any need to return.
Our next stop, Geelong, offered whimsical handpainted bollards dotted around town and the National Wool Museum. Nineteenth-century Geelong was a major wool center, and the museum, suitably housed in an 1872 bluestone woolhouse, was an eye-opener. Sheep farming is such a part of Australia we had assumed it always thrived here. Not so. Sheep were completely foreign to the continent when introduced by the European colonists in the late 1700s, and to their consternation the familiar breeds they knew at home were entirely unsuited to the climate. It took decades of breeding to come up with sheep that could survive the harsh conditions and produce good-quality wool. It even mattered how wrinkly the sheep’s skin was; wrinkly skin meant more surface area and a greater quantity of wool but made the animal hard to shear.
Another unforeseen consequence was the damage the sheep did to the land itself. Since native Australian animals don’t have hard hooves, the ground stayed loose enabling certain grasses and plants to grow. But the sheep, 20 million of them by 1860, trampled and compacted the ground so thoroughly that many native plants died off. Guess what happened to the native animals that ate the plants and the native people who ate the animals? It gets worse. The museum’s machinery display explained that parts of the wool processing were highly polluting, especially the first cleaning, known as “scouring.” This involved soaking the shorn wool in large vats laced with sulphuric acid and dumping the wastewater in the river. Though the industry has cleaned up, a plaque said some sites are still toxic. From a high of 180 million sheep in 1970, Australia’s sheep population now stands at 65 million.
From Geelong we drove to Torquay where we found the Australian National Surfing Museum. Not big, not fancy, but totally genuine, thanks in no small part to the docent who happened to be leading a school group and invited us to listen in. Now in his fifties, he had been a dedicated surfer and later a surfing magazine editor, and his passion for the sport still shone. Don’t worry, he said, when you see a surfer wipe out and seem to get crushed by an enormous wave. It’s like being inside a washing machine, but as long as you relax and don’t waste energy fighting it, the sea will pop you back up and serious injuries are very rare. Try to make the ride inside the curl last as long as possible; when you’re in the curl there’s a magical feeling as if time stops. The choice of a surfboard is highly personal, and most surfboards are custom-made as a collaboration between the surfer and board maker to get the shape and stability just right. The 3-fin board, invented by Australian surfer Simon Anderson in 1980, seems to work better than one fin or two, though no one knows exactly why. Surfing is not a science, the docent emphasized, the sea is different every single day, and you never encounter the same set of conditions twice. Indeed, we sailors know about that. To cap off our day we drove to nearby Bells Beach, where many of the Australian surfing champions profiled in the museum got their start.
And now we were in for nature at her finest on the Great Ocean Road. Stretching 249 km along Australia’s rugged south coast from Torquay to Allansford, it was conceived in 1919 as a jobs project for returning servicemen and took until 1932 to complete. Some 3,000 men worked on it during that time, living in tent camps as the road progressed. Dedicated to the soldiers who died in World War I, it is the world’s largest war memorial. For travelers today, the Great Ocean Road offers rocky cliffs, powerful surf, virtually empty beaches and forests laced with hiking trails. We tramped to two waterfalls, spotting yellow-tailed black-cockatoos and other life birds. At the same time we were puzzled by the almost total absence of shorebirds on the beach, nor did we see any seals. A number of small towns are strung along the route, but no big cities or tourist traps—may it stay that way! The coastal weather alternated every few days from serene and sunny to rainy and tempestuous. We never bothered to get a forecast; we just got up and went.
At Cape Otway we visited the lighthouse, which dates from 1848 and is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse in Oz. Again, more spectacular views. The most interesting part, however, was talking with the ranger at the Aboriginal cultural hut on the site. He is blond, blue-eyed and Aboriginal—six generations back his full-blooded ancestress married his half-Aboriginal/half-Dutch ancestor. It was an arranged union at a time when Aboriginal law forbade marriages between certain tribal groups and when the whites were trying to breed the black people out of existence. The ranger showed us a photo of the couple taken in the mid-1800s dressed in European clothes. It underscores what several Australians have told us about why we seem to see so few Aboriginal people around: “There are more Aboriginals in Australia than you might think, you just won’t recognize them.”
After the lighthouse came one of the highlights of the Great Ocean Road, the Twelve Apostles, a grouping of jagged sandstone towers that have separated from the mainland and stand with their feet in the ocean. The only flaw in the dramatic scenery was the three idiotic young men who climbed the safety barrier to do headstands in the buffeting wind on the restricted point above the thundering ocean. Where is the Darwin Award when you need it? Other wind- and wave-carved formations along the road are The Arch, a pillar-in-progress, and London Bridge, which is no longer a “bridge” because back in the 1990s the sandstone arch connecting it to the mainland collapsed, leaving two terrified tourists stranded on the new “island.” They had to be rescued off the sheer clifftop by helicopter. A dangerous beauty is Nature.
Near the end of the Great Ocean Road, we drank beer in a restored and whimsically decorated 1851 country pub in Panmure. At Warrnambol we hiked around the lake in the crater of a volcano at Tower Hill Reserve. Next, Port Fairy, whose claim to fame is that it has been voted the Most Liveable Small Community in the World. It is indeed a sweet place with a tidy main street, gabled houses, and small boats adorning the river. It almost reminded us of Hobbiton. But the real fun was that we arrived just in time for the Sunday afternoon performance of a play called “My In-laws are Outlaws” at the historical Lecture Hall. The work of New Zealand playwright Devon Williamson, it’s a comedy about a mob family that aims to do away with their daughter-in-law, and after a slow start it became absolutely hilarious when a pair of dim-witted, father-son Irish hitmen entered the plot and the two actors stole the show. Who needs the Sydney Opera House when you can get tickets to support a local theatre production that will be hard to forget?
Some miles past Port Fairy we stopped to view the Codrington wind farm. We’d seen other windmills at a distance on the south coast, but this is the first time a windmill company provided a pull-over to stop the car and signage to explain the operation. It turns out Codrington, opened in 2001, was Australia’s first commercial wind farm, and the strong prevailing winds blowing off the Southern Ocean made it an ideal site. The 34 lazily turning windmills we counted now generate enough electricity annually to supply 10,000 homes and to avoid the emission of 49,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas, the equivalent of taking more than 17,000 cars off the roads.
Nearing Adelaide we screeched to a halt at a roadside restaurant in Kingston SE called The Big Lobster. If you remember the photo of us posing in front of the Big Banana in Coffs Harbour, you’ll know why we braked here. Yes, another Australian “Big Thing” to add to our bucket list! Built in 1979 of fiberglass and steel, Larry the Lobster is 17 meters tall. Since the scenery along this stretch consists of scrubland and a mostly empty, two-lane highway, Larry rules in all his splendor. Then on to Adelaide, where, after a month underway in Glinda, we would reach the end of our outward journey.
What would we find there?
29-30 Oct. – Melbourne
31 Oct. – Geelong, Torquay, Bells Beach, start of Great Ocean Road, Lorne
1-3 Nov. – Apollo Bay, Cape Otway, Twelve Apostles, Panmure, end of Great Ocean Road
4 Nov. Dartmoor, Mt. Gambier, Wright’s Bay