Hello from my new favourite Australian city, Melbourne, and welcome to my Christmas blog! I flew into here from Darwin on Christmas Eve on what was pretty much the only on time Jetstar flight leaving from there that day. The flight itself took 3 hours 45 minutes and was the comfiest flight I've ever had since I had the luxury legroom of an emergency exit row. Annoyingly though they ran out of TV sets for hire after about 6 rows so I had to make do with music for the whole time. On arrival into Melbourne it was noticably cooler and less humid than Darwin, which was a welcome relief. It was however drizzling, as it was the day I flew into Sydney, so I didn't do much with my spare afternoon on Christmas Eve. In the evening I joined some other people in the hostel TV room to watch "Carols by Candlelight", which seems to be some kind of Melbourne Christmas tradition. None of us were feeling especially in the Christmas mood and we hoped this would make us feel more festive - it didn't! I thought I'd seen everything watching the Eurovision song contest over the years, but the people on Carols by Candelight had some serious issues. It was quite cringeworthily disturbing, as are a lot of Australian TV shows.
The next morning I awoke in my 4 bed hostel dorm (shared with 2 non-English speaking Chinese people and an old man) for the first Christmas Day I've ever spent away from my house in Lincoln. It sure didn't feel like Christmas morning in any way, despite the fact the weather outside was cloudy. I basically did what I would have done on any other day and went for an explore of Melbourne in the morning. The streets were very quiet to start with and I had a nice walk along the southbank, which offered nice views of the Melbourne Skyline. I had a quick look around Federation Square, which is a very modern square built opposite Flinders Street Station in the heart of Melbourne, and then had a walk up to the Melbourne Cricket Ground, which is Australia's largest sporting venue. The Pakistan cricket team were on the training field outside warming up to play Australia in another Australian Christmas tradition - the Boxing Day test, held every year at the MCG. Some sad people were watching from the small stand there - I couldn't think of a worse way to spend Christmas. Adjacent to the MCG is the Melbourne Olympic Park, which hosted the games in 1956. The old stadium looks very worn, but next to it they are erecting a really modern looking multi-purpose sports stadium which will host soccer and rugby games, amongst other things. And immediately next to the Olympic Park there is also the Melbourne tennis centre, which hosts the Australian Open tennis championships every January - the first grand slam of the year. As all this hints, Melbourne is very much Australia's sporting capital, and one reason I like the place. Aussie Rules is the main sport here, with nearly all of the teams in the league coming from the Melbourne area. Its out of season now so I won't be getting to a game.
After spending the latter part of the morning exploring all these sporting venues I had a hasty walk back to my hostel for the Christmas Lunch put on in the hostel bar. It cost extra and there really weren't as many people there as I was expecting. One table had about 20 people on, but I got seated on one of the other 2 smaller tables along with 6 other people (5 Brits and a Swiss). Everybody seemed to be in the same frame of mind as me, and was unable to comprehend the fact it was Christmas Day. Rather than feeling excited, the vibe I got from most travellers in the hostel was very downbeat. Christmas is almost an inconvenience to the long term traveller as it forces them to think of home, which I think was why people weren't all that cheery. The hostel didn't do a great job of cheering people up. They weren't even playing Christmas songs, and there were no Christmas Crackers or anything. The main event, the meal, was a monstrosity. Our starter was a really dry and bland piece of garlic bread, which you could have used as a murder weapon. That was followed by Christmas dinner itself, which consisted of packet turkey, packet salad, pumpkin, peas and roast potato. Desert was a cross between Christmas pudding and a cow pat. Everybody at the table found it pretty funny though, and it was never going to be the same as a home cooked Christmas dinner.
After the hour or so dinner we all went our seperate ways in the afternoon, and I took advantage of the free tram service that day and headed south of the river to explore Albert Park. By this time the sun had burned off the clouds and the temperature had reached about 23C (cool for this time of year). Albert Park plays host to the Australian Grand Prix every March, and I was eager to explore the circuit, which is a public road for the rest of the year. Unlike in Montreal however (where they'd left the curbs and gravel traps in place), there was little to no trace of a formula 1 race there. The preperation for the event must be massive as they've an incredible amount to do. The only evidence of formula 1 activity was in the derelict looking paddock alongside the pit straight. The start line was still marked on the ground and you could walk up to where the winner's trophy would be presented. The park itself was full of families enjoying the summer weather - having picnics, BBQ's and playing sports like cricket. It reminded me of being in Clumber Park the week before I left in August, and I can honestly say I felt about as Christmassy on that day in August as I did on Christmas Day in Australia.
I then proceeded down to Melbourne's beach neighbourhood St Kilda, which was again crammed with families and groups of friends having fun in the sun. Seeing people sunbathe, windsurf and buy ice cream was weird considering the date. I also found that there were a lot more shops, bars and restaurants open in Melbourne and St Kilda than there would normally be back home. It almost felt like any other Sunday. The highlight of my day was supposed to be ringing home for the 2nd time all trip in the evening (when it would have been morning back in England). However this didn't go well as the line on the Telstra pay phone was horrific, so we didn't talk long. All in all my Christmas Day felt like any other day. I definitely don't think Christmas is as big a deal in Australia as England. Half of the anticipation here seems to be in people looking forward to their summer holidays. The kids here break up for summer around December 20th, and having stayed at home over Christmas it is common for people to go away on Boxing Day, much like the Brits would take their kids on holiday in late July.
I was relieved when Christmas was over, and woke up bright and early on Boxing Day for my full day trip out to the Great Ocean Road - Victoria's premier attraction. It was a one hour drive south west to the start of the road, which begins just past the city of Geelong. The first section of the road is famed for its quality surfing - indeed the headquarters of Ripcurl and Quiksilver are located here. We stopped at Bell's Beach, which was made famous by the film Point Break, and the surf looked very good. The ocean along the road was all a fantastic blue colour, though it is famously very cold as its fed by waters from the Antarctic. We had plenty of photos stops along the surf coast, including one by the lighthouse used in the kids TV show Round the Twist. All the vistas were spectacular, and the towns we drove through appeared very quaint and nice. We had a brief stop at a known koala spotting area, and sure enough I got to see one in the wild for the first time. Fortuantely it was awake and was descending its tree with an army of photographers around the base taking pictures of it. When it finally made it onto the ground it was followed by a huddle of camera wielding maniacs like some kind of Hollywood celebrity. I felt sorry for the poor thing! There were also a lot of parrots for us to observe. One large one strangely decided to land on the back of my neck (whats wrong with the shoulders!) and managed to scratch me as it attempted to cling on to a vertical part of my body.
After lunch on Apollo Beach we headed up through a small rainforest and over some hills in the direction of the shipwreck coast. The scenery here reminded me a lot of England at the end of summer. The hills were a lot like the South Downs, and driving home on the inland route at the end of the tour was a lot like driving through the Cotswolds. The shipwreck coast is home to the Twelve Apostle sea stacks, which are the main attraction on the road. We had beautiful weather to get some great photos of them, as well as the neighbouring Loch Ard Gorge and London Bridge cliff rock formations. The tour was well worth the money and I would say the Great Ocean Road was one of the most beautiful spots I've seen in Australia. It certainly beat the bland coastline of the east coast.
Yesterday I had another morning exploring Melbourne (yet again it was cloudy). I visited the botanical gardens and the large Shrine of Rememberance, before ascending the Eureka Skydeck, which is home to the southern hemisphere's highest observation deck. The views across the city were good if a little hazy, and you could see inside the MCG, which didn't appear to be at all full. I took a ride on "The Edge", which was a completely glass room which slid out from the building, but it possibly wasn't worth the long wait. Due to the wait I had to hurry back to my hostel in time for my afternoon Neighbours tour - a definite highlight of my time here in Melbourne. Disappointingly the studios are closed at the moment for major renovation, so we just got taken to the real Ramsey Street, which is a public street called Pin Oak Court. It is located in the leafy east Melbourne suburb of South Vermont, which like a lot of Australian suburbs, appeared to be a very nice place. We had a drive around the school once used in the show before arriving at the street itself. It definitely looked a lot smaller in real life than on TV, and it was strange to see it packed with cars. There were a few other fans about not on the tour, but the security guard kept a close eye on them. During daylight hours the street is guarded at all times, and its even closed off at night as the residents have so many problems. Filming takes place twice a week on the street (outside of the month break in December), and they always have to wait for a sunny day to film. Melbourne can get quite cold in the winter but the actors must always wear summer clothes to keep up the illusion to British viewers. The guide told us about upcoming storylines, but I've lost track of the show anyway. Perhaps the only notable thing is that mainstay Lou Carpenter is leaving next year to retire. He will apparently leave to go and look after his injured daughter in the show. After having a while to take photos of the houses and have a look round, we got taken back to St Kilda to meet our "Neighbours Star". They were obviously running low on people as we met the actor who played Dylan Timmins from 2004-07. He knew he wouldn't be a big attraction though and was very good humoured about the whole thing, and full of energy with all us tourists he met.
When we got dropped off back in town I went for a wander around the Docklands area, which looked nice but was a bit dead like most Docklands redevelopements. In the evening I met up with Katie from the first half of my South America tour. She was staying at a nearby hostel so I went over there for a chat, which was nice. She's the first familiar face I've seen in a long while! This afternoon I'll also be meeting up with Melbournite Julia after she finishes work in her centrally located cafe. I've not seen her since being in La Paz back in September so it will be nice to catch up.
This morning the weather is cloudy once again, and I've spent my time wandering around the centre seeing the sights I haven't seen yet. Melbourne has a really nice vibe to it, and seems to be a little slower paced than Sydney. It's the country's cultural capital and there always seems to be a lot going on here. The locals are also probably the nicest of all Australians, and the city seems to have many European influences, giving it a bit of a classy feel. One sight directly linked to Europe is Captain Cook's Cottage, which I visited this morning. What was left of it (half of it was demolished to make way for a road) was shipped over in 1934 from Great Ayton in North Yorkshire, and its been rebuilt in some public gardens here. I had a quick walk round it, which was another reminder of home as I've visited Great Ayton a number of times.
Anyway I shall now go. This has been a long blog! I depart Melbourne tomorrow morning on a rail replacement bus bound for Australia's capital Canberra, and I'll update from there. Thanks for reading.