Of Laksa and Kangaroos II

There is something off-putting about Melbourne’s airport. Whereas Sydney and Brisbane have trains connecting their airports to the city centre, Melbourne only has coaches. That’s fair enough, I suppose. One does get there eventually. It does, however, come off as being a bit naff. One expects that from Sacramento, from Cardiff or even from Dublin — not the second city and former capital of a major country.

Melbourne left me with distinctly mixed impressions. It has its share of grand buildings and arcades. But… There was an air of pretentiousness about it all. Melbourne takes itself so very seriously. It is oh-so-respectable, oh so right-on. I preferred East Melbourne where I had booked myself into a bed and breakfast in a Georgian/Victorian terrace. I felt strangely at ease there. There was an easy charm, an atmosphere of faded grandeur. The clean, but slightly tatty carpets, the polished but darkened wood panels, the stained glass. Ivy grew up along the the wrought iron. It felt almost as if I were floating in some sort of time warp.

An old mate, a proud Victorian, took me on a drive through the mountains near Melbourne stopping for pies and coffee on the way. He was most amused by my inability to grasp the Australian tomato sauce container. He’s a man of rare energy, a veteran of the Australian armed forces and a seasoned traveller. Our stories overlap in some ways, but he is decidedly the more adventurous. I can’t be bothered to share rooms with strangers in third world countries, for example. There might be something about those experiences that make them interest and unique, but my time as a teenager and a uni student sharing rooms with others has put me off that for life. Some of his mates’ stories from South East Asia were brilliant. Absolutely horrible, but brilliantly horrible!

He took me around Melbourne, to his favourite places. The coffee, I admit, was quite good. Having had to endure the dross that passes as coffee in Europe, I was happy to drink inordinate amounts of flat whites. The coffee in Victoria was, to be fair, better than the coffee in New South Wales and Queensland.

As I ate my first breakfast in Australia, a Dutchwoman walked in. She quickly started to slag Australia and Australians off. Upon learning that I live in the UK, she tried to curry favour with me against the Aussies whilst also banging on about Brexit. I made it very clear that her lack of graciousness towards Australia and its people was most unbecoming and that I am perfectly happy to leave a dying, retrograde Europe behind and face a much more interesting and dynamic world. It took her a moment to process that, but she then started to try to talk over me and browbeat me. A middle-aged woman from provincial Western Australia had had enough of her at that point and we teamed up together against her. The Australian backed me, I backed her. It was Britain and Australia against Europe. This was not the only time I was harangued by Europeans in Australia and it was not the last time that the Australians backed me.

I travelled by train to Bendigo. It was a pleasant journey, but one that made me think. Within 15-20 minutes, there was precious little save the occasional small settlement. Leaving London, it takes at least an hour for the congestion to start to ease and there is nowhere in southern England that truly feels “empty”. When travelling by BART from SFO to Bay Point, it’s only a question of relative congestions. California has its share of open spaces, but it takes well over an hour before one reaches empty patches. Bendigo is a pretty, well-preserved town. It’s largely 19th century, a product of its origins as a major gold fields settlement. The taxi driver who took me to my bed and breakfast was a good deal of fun. He took me quickly, avoiding the “scenic route” that so many European taxi drivers favour whilst giving me solid advice on what to see and do from the perspective of a local.

I liked Bendigo better than Melbourne. It was more down-to-earth and the coffee was just as good. It was grand, but modest. In a way, it made me think of a Folsom or Sonora — larger towns in California with their roots in that state’s gold rush. So much money poured through a relatively small area in such a short amount of time that an unusual grandeur quickly emerged. Even the local used bookshop was in an unusually grand edifice. I was pleased to no end by being able to eat Australian cheese again at last. British cheeses are excellent, but Australia has its own interpretations of classic cheeses and they’re more than credible.

The bed and breakfast in Bendigo was stunningly clean and well-presented. It was in a converted 1920s bungalow. There wasn’t much service, but they left all I needed and it was a quiet, enjoyable experience. I took a coach to Ballarat. Ballarat left me with distinctly mixed feelings. It was interesting and certainly more historically important than Bendigo, but it lacked some of the polished charm. Bendigo had nicer parks and its Chinese museum was excellent. Ballarat has an art gallery and some stunning architecture, but it felt like something I had seen many times before. I stayed at a federation cottage in Ballarat. It was well-stocked, but it felt somehow unpleasant and uncomfortable.

The owners never met me once. I was given a code with which to open a locked box and to take the keys out. I found a note telling me to leave payment in a drawer. It was decidedly impersonal. Everywhere there were notes telling me what I was and was not to do. Most of it was common sense, but some if it was grating. For example, do not use the internet for me than checking emails or searching for things. So, no Netflix? No Youtube videos? On top of that, they asked for extra donations for having used the internet and for eating some of the food that was part of the room rate. Bloody really? I was happy to get out of there. I can, however, say that I found a brilliant Thai restaurant which I thoroughly enjoyed.

I went back to Melbourne early. I was able to check my suitcase in for the night train to Sydney and leave my computer bag in my mate’s BMW motorcycle. We travelled once more through Melbourne, going to Southbank and the War Memorial. It wasn’t my first time to Southbank, I had rather a steamy date with a Japanese there some days earlier. The War Memorial was, however, excellent. The views over the coast were worth it and the history of Australia’s involvement in wars from the South African Wars to peace-keeping missions was interesting. Australia does war memorials and museums very well.

I let Melbourne on the overnight train for Sydney. I had a proper moan about Melbourne, but I know I will be back in 2021. It was a long, but very pleasant, journey. The woman sitting next to me was a well-travelled Australian and a good conversation partner. I was, once again, reminded at just how welcome someone who has, for all intents and purpose become British, is welcomed in Australia.

Author: Christopher-Dorset

A Bloody Kangaroo

17 thoughts on “Of Laksa and Kangaroos II”

  1. Hi Christopher. An enjoyable read. Having been there so recently myself, I was interested to learn your perspective. Our circumstances were different. Age, human appendages, schedules and seasons will have all played a part in presenting a different experience of Melbourne. But I think our conclusions were similar in that the city did not really hit the spot.

    I think the one point that really struck home were your remarks about wilderness, which I think Australians often call the ‘hinterland’. In any event, it is so true. Once you are away from the conurbations, which happens relatively quickly, one can travel miles without seeing any sign of habitation at all. And that is not even going into the “outback”. It used to be that way in this country. When I first came to Southern Rhodesia, the population was roughly 3 million. It is now 17 million, rapidly catching Australia which is nearly 20 times the size. There are few arterial routes here, so people live close to the roads. And they do so in vast numbers.

    I am looking forward to hear your views on Sydney and Brisbane. The latter is my favourite Australian city, but don’t tell Boadicea or Bearsy. They will think that I am going soft.

  2. CD, your travelogues remund me more and more of the iconic Jack Kerouac’s On the Road; embracing the landscape, introducing your chance acquaintances and landing solid blows as the occasion demands. British you may feel but such literary freedom comes from the New World!

  3. Great stuff, Christoper, very enjoyable reading.

    No probs Sipu, I’ll pretend I didn’t see it!

    Janus, old bean, sorry but I have to disagree with your conclusion. There’s nowt wrong with Kerouac or Hemingway. but how about George Orwell (Eric Blair) or perhaps rather more pertinently George Borrow? Borrow’s Bible in Spain or my favourite Wild Wales were both travelogues with a punch, and then some. 😎

  4. Sipu: The coach ride from Bendigo to Ballarat took roughly 90 minutes. There is only one coach per day between the two, but there were very few passengers. Myself included, there were 5. It wasn’t a direct coach, either. It stopped at several settlements on the way. There was almost nothing. The crowdedness of southern England can be hard to take, but the extreme emptiness of Australia can be just as daunting. Perhaps it’s best to have both. There is a sense of security knowing that you’re not far from help and, if the immediate surroundings grow tedious, there is something close by. At the same time, there’s something liberating about vast, open spaces.

    We’re very much in agreement. Melbourne did not quite hit the spot. I appreciated much about it, but I never felt completely at ease there. I liked Sydney a bit better than Melbourne, but preferred some of the suburbs over the city itself. Sydney isn’t as smug as Melbourne, but it’s money-obsessed and rather too breakneck for my tastes. I do, however, look forward to going to Africa next year. I’m gradually putting together some plans. I’ll fly to Cape Town via Addis Ababa and fly back to London from Harare.

    Janus: I’ve read my share of Austin Coates and Bruce Chatwin. Britons both, neither refrained from making cutting observations and including those they met along the way. Japanese writers, similarly, do not refrain from making their observations clear. Japanese literature is probably the best way to get to know the Japanese people. In their daily lives, the Japanese can be almost painfully reserved and hide behind a mask of manners. In their literature, they say what they see and think very clearly. Not that there is anything wrong with being compared to some of the great American writers!

    Bearsy: πŸ˜€

  5. I think that you don’t know the UK very well as yet. There are quite extensive parts of the south Downs where you can see for miles without habitation. Equally, further afield, parts of Devon up on the moors and if you travel to Wales there are miles of mid Wales with out a single dwelling. Try the B4518! Ok, not the same as Australia but never the less remarkable in a tiny island with a vast population.
    From your travelogues you only seem to visit cities, no natural phenomena.

  6. CO: Of course. There are wide empty spaces in Dorset as well. Even from Dorchester you can see miles of empty spaces, nothing but green, rolling hills. If you drive a few minutes from Dorchester’s high street there’s nothing but green for as wide as the eye can see. You’re right, of course, about the Downs and parts of Devon and Cornwall. There is, however, a vast difference between empty patches in Britain and Australia where there is a cattle station larger than Wales. In Britain, even in the wildest parts such as the Scottish Highlands, you don’t have the vast spaces between settlements like in Australia. That was my main point.

    So far, I’ve only discussed Melbourne and provincial Victoria. I did go into the mountains of Victoria, miles from anything. In New South Wales I travelled to the Blue Mountains and I stayed at an old estate in the countryside, on top of a hill overlooking the plains and the foothills of the Blue Mountains. Admittedly, I do tend to stick to somewhat more urbanised areas. The reasons for this vary, but one of the main reasons is that I simply hate driving and see no joy in having to hire a car. It’s not so bad in Australia where most cars are automatic, but it would be far more difficult in the UK where most hire cars are manual. As a matter of principle, I refuse to spend 3-5 times as much to hire an automatic and I’ve given up on ever learning how to drive a manual!

  7. I’m certainly of the opinion that Melbournites are more than a little snooty… and that Sydney is too fast, furious and money-mad for my liking.

    Christina – you have no idea just how few and far between are human settlements in Australia. Signs warning that this is the last petrol station for the next 300 km are not uncommon. Getting a puncture, even on a fairly busy highway can be pretty scary – my daughter and I struggled with one – and when someone stopped to help we weren’t too sure whether to be even more scared… lots of nasty thing seem to happen on our highways!

    Try flying over Australia – look down and all one can see is a landscape, not unlike that of Mars, of red earth, evidence of huge rivers that long ago dried up and not one settlement in sight. Look out of the window half an hour later and the landscape has not changed.

    Yes, there are ‘open’ spaces in the UK – but nothing quite like there are here.

    One time, Bearsy and I drove from Canberra to Darwin – took us 9 days – but we weren’t in a hurry and we detoured to Uluru – it was after all a mere 250 km out of the way. If one has any sense one simply does not drive at night – there are no lights and the buffalo lie down on the tarmac. If you hit one – they get up and walk away – you don’t.

  8. Herds of deer do the same in Scotland, the tarmac holds the heat!
    I am well aware how empty Australia is, mostly because it is too arid to sustain any commercial value for any type of farming. Were it any use, some bugger would be living there! (Except of course mining!)

  9. “and when someone stopped to help we weren’t too sure whether to be even more scared”.

    Boadicea, you raise an interesting point, as far as chivalrous men are concerned. I recall a Sunday evening many years ago when I was driving back from London to Cheltenham. It was dark and pis$ing with rain and there was a lot of traffic. I am not sure of the situation these days, but then the road was single carriage way full of twists and turns. Coming round a bend, I saw car broken down on the side of the road. I stopped and walked back to assist. A young woman was there, clearly distressed. She had been there for some time and since it was before the era of mobile phones she had little alternative of getting help other than to accept that of a Good Samaritan. I cant remember the cause of the breakdown, but it was not something I could fix, and so I offered her a lift into town, still 15 miles away. Very hesitantly she accepted. But as she sat in the car she was so obviously antagonistic towards me. She spurned all efforts at conversation and clutched the door handle as if ready to open it and jump out should I say or do anything remotely threatening; something that had not crossed my mind. In fact, I was very conscious of her predicament. When I eventually dropped her off, at a ‘safe spot’ she never said thank you, or if she did it was certainly no more than an inaudible grunt. She made no effort to get my contact details to follow up. And that was that. I have to confess I was somewhat offended, especially as she was now in a safe spot. While I appreciate that there are dangers around, I believe there are far more white knights out there than desperadoes. I think it sad that people assume the worst.

    Such reactions certainly dissuade one from assisting others in distress. Simply by helping them, one is terrifying them. The dilemma being that if one does stop and help, one is a potential murdering rapist and should be treated as such. If one doesn’t, one is a selfish, callous bar stard.

    Ironically, on another occasion, in Cape Town, I stopped to help a man who waved me down on a motorway leaving the city. He gave me long story about how he had locked his wallet in his office and had no money for petrol…. It turned out to be a complete con. Bogus phone number, bogus company. I never heard from him again and certainly never got my money back.

    But another time, travelling from Cheltenham to London, on a Friday evening, two young chaps were standing by their broken down car. I drove them to their house in Oxford. They were so grateful and wanted to pay me for going out of my way. My only request was that they do the same for others. But possibly that is not the thing to do.

    What advice is there for those willing to help others?

  10. Interesting comment Christina! I remember one time, many years ago very late at night, being called out to find a spare radiator and take it into the dark, deep depths of Surrey. A deer had run into the road and whether it ran into the car or the other way round – there was one smashed radiator that had to be replaced before spouse #2 could get home.

    Sipu I think the only advice I can give is offer the help!

    We had spent about half-an-hour trying to get the punctured wheel off – to no avail. Our combined strength hadn’t shifted it one bit. So although we were a bit wary – we were so pleased that someone did stop. I own to sneakily taking some photos of the guy when he wasn’t looking – just in case!

    People, generally, are or were, pretty helpful. A number of times when we’ve been parked by the side of the road for a coffee or snack people have driven by slowly and asked if we were OK.

    Oddly enough, if I help someone out – my only ‘price’ is to ask them to do the same for others. I think it’s a very fair request and, hopefully, the ‘kindness’ gets passed on.

  11. P.S. Sipu – I think the young woman you helped was incredibly rude. She should have realised that no woman would have stopped for her – I don’t know how long ago it was but I doubt I would have. That nothing untoward occurred and you took her where she wanted to go – the very least she should have done was to say ‘Thank You’. I would, also, have been most offended.

  12. Bearsy, Kerouac was the master. Your nominations may have merit but they are sitting in the bleachers!

  13. Sipu, you say that your rendering assistance to a young woman was “many years ago.” Well done! Just what I’d have expected a gentleman of the day (including even yrs. truly) to do.

    Time has passed and these days, as I’m sure you’re aware, condemnation does not require actually having done something naughty. Oh, no, in these troubled times it’s a mere accusation that can ruin one’s life. In my harsher moments, which is to say most of them, I could almost wish for all such hyperimaginative “#MeToo”-ers to be stranded and ignored by all passersby.

    On the other side of the coin, perhaps I ought to feel disappointed that no one has seen fit to accuse me of anything of that sort. Oh, well…

  14. Yes, Sipu and Cog, it is very sad that gentlemen can no longer stop to help damsels in distress without the nagging worry of later being accused of improper behaviour. At least now most people have a mobile with which to call the AA or RAC to their aid.

    When we were in Chile, we were surprised to meet on the roof terrace of our hotel in Santiago a couple of Brits who had been beside us on the plane from Heathrow. They had hired a car at the airport and set off to visit one of the vineyards in the Central Valley. En route they got a puncture and while trying to change the tyre were assisted by some locals. Very friendly. It was not until some time later that they realised the helpful locals had helped themselves to some of their luggage, including the bag with all the passports, tickets, hotel reservations and cash. They then had all the hassle of contacting the British embassy for replacement passports, travelling back to Santiago for passport photos and so on. So it is perhaps wise to be cautious of helpful strangers, at least in some parts of the world.

  15. And now for some good news. On my recent trip back from Cape Town, I hit the outer edge of the cyclone. The already dreadful roads were made even worse by the heavy rain. I saw an elderly couple on the side of the road. Their car had broken down. I was able to offer some limited help. I did not know the couple or any of their family, but out of the blue, I have just received a message from a relative of theirs with whom I work.

    “Just got told an interesting story the other day about a man who helped my Aunt-in-law. Just wanted to say thank you! Hope you are well!”

    So that makes up for the disappointments.

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