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Tourism Australia , Cheap travel to Melbourne, backpacking in Melbourne
By: Sara Clemence (justin) 2011.12.12

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When my boyfriend Keir returned to Tourism Australia I tracked his flight home on a map. "The only thing that is farther away from me than you," I quipped, "is Antartica." It was then that I decided to go down and visit Tourism Australia for a vacation.

One of Australia's great obstacles is also one of its great strengths. Distance is part of what makes Tourism Australia the beautiful, strange, and paradoxical country that it is. It is big, young, and sparsely populated. Its flora and fauna are not to be seen anywhere else in the world. And while Crocodile Dundee personified the rugged, pioneering spirit that still exists in Tourism Australia , today people are much more urban than outback: 88% of the population lives in and around cities such as Melbourne (pronounced "Mel-bun" here, not "Mel-born") and are more representative of modern Australia than the untamed bush.


Batman founded the city of Melbourne. If you don't believe me, a downtown street is named after him. In 1835, John Batman gave blankets, scissors, and other small goods to local Aboriginal groups. In exchange, he got 400 square miles of land. Fifteen years later, the gold rush brought money and immigrants to Melbourne, and the city began its transformation into the charming, thriving metropolis it is today.

The Yarra River carves though the city like a southern Seine, a characteristic that helped Melbourne earn its moniker "the Paris of the Antipodes." But don't be fooled: Melbourne isn't Paris. It lacks the statuesque architecture, the patina of a long and complex history, and the highly developed culture that comes only with age. Instead, Melbourne boasts beautiful gardens, Victorian embellishment, and wonderful food at a fraction of Paris prices. The city is deservedly known as the fashion capital of Australia; its streets are replete with residents wearing their casual chic with aplomb, even on the hottest days.

The best way to get around Melbourne is the tram system, which has been around since 1884. There is a charge for most trams, but the free City Circle Tram takes visitors around the city center, past some of the more prominent landmarks: State Parliament, St. Paul's Cathedral, and the expensive boutiques on the "Paris end" of Collins Street.

Bugs a la carte
During the trip, we lunched at the home of a friend of Keir's father Philip. When we arrived I was asked if I liked to eat bugs. Bugs? Was I expected to eat a helping of mixed insects? Deep-fried pests? In the end, I was glad to find that bugs fall somewhere between crayfish and lobsters. One of the other guests, a sunburnt fisherman from Queensland (in northern Australia) had brought them down fresh, and they were so sweet they didn't need to be dipped in cocktail sauce.

I was almost as surprised by desert as by the bugs. I'm no stranger to heavy English sweets, but being served a Christmas pudding – hot, boiled, and containing lard – drove home the idea that Australia didn't fight for its independence from Great Britain. Because if it had, then the pudding should have been the first thing to go. The stuff is fine in drafty, England, but the heavy food just doesn't make sense locally. It was like being served iced coffee at an Eskimo dinner.

After lunch we strolled around Carlton, which boasts some of the most unique architecture in the region, a lacy variation on Victorian. The streets hold rows of small houses like miniature cakes, delicately iced with metal filigree. The area was once a working class suburb, and the elaborate outsides conceal small, boxy interiors. Today, Carlton houses are highly prized and well preserved, from the iron ornaments to the grandly aspirational names molded onto the facades: Rose Cottage, Bloom House, Parkdale.

Imagine a golf crowd at a baseball game
Australians love their sports: Rugby, Australian rules football, and boomerang throwing. A special passion is reserved for cricket though.

Whoever compares cricket to baseball might be right on some counts: balls, bats, and running. But going to a cricket match is not like going to a baseball game. In Test Cricket, the purist's version, matches last five days, and even in rowdy Australia the game retains its British restraint. There is no loud pop music between innings, no lit signs flashing "CHARGE!" Certainly nobody is dancing around in a bird costume. The game is quiet. The players wear white pants and sweaters, and when they score runs, we all clap nicely.

I was lucky to catch the game at the round MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground) stadium, a much-revered venue. When they're not playing cricket here, it's Australian Football League season. Australian Football is literally a foreign concept to the rest of the world, as it was invented in Australia in 1858. It's part football, part soccer, part rugby, and has even got a little basketball in it (players are allowed to bounce the ball on the ground). What it's not is dull.

After a couple of hours and several explanations, I was starting to get a feel for the rhythm of cricket. Only then did I notice a clamorous group on the other side of the stadium. They were chanting and singing "Bahmee-ahmee! Bahmee-ahmee!" which translates into the "Balmy Army" – a group of British fans who travel to away games to cheer, jeer, and raise a ruckus for the British team. While they bellowed songs, we sat in the sun and watched the game and clapped in a civilized way while eating a fat, hot donut, sandy with fine granulated sugar and filled with raspberry jam.

Anglesea and the Great Ocean Road
We had a little time to spend in Geelong, so made a trip to the southern coast. Even in the summer, the water off much of Australia's southern coast is bracingly, teeth-chatteringly cold thanks to a direct current from the Antarctic.

This area offers some amazing sights by driving down the Great Ocean Road, built after World War I to help employ the scores of men who had recently returned from the war and as a tribute for those who died. The Road begins in Geelong, about 60 miles southwest of Melbourne, and follows the contours of the coast for another 250 miles west.

We had only a little time to spend there, so we confined ourselves to the Steam Packet Place promenade, which runs along the waterfront. I loved it just for the witty, folksy, totem-like sculptures that decorated it. A painted row of lifeguards stands at the ready on the beach, and a woman dressed for tea waits patiently in front of one of the yacht clubs.

Once out of Geelong we moved quickly and the road became narrow and twisted. We passed Bell's Beach, the surfer's haven that was Patrick Swayze's final destination in Point Break. On the left, I could see swatches of sea through the trees, while on the right, woody hills rose up. Angular houses sometimes jutted out from the slopes, their modern shapes precariously bolted to the mountains.

Our friend Leon's house in Anglesea was as quick turn off the main road. From the deck that wrapped around the light-filled house there was an unimpeded view of the shore. A lighthouse punctuated the coast on the right. Below it, Leon pointed out the small, protected beach where he had been a junior lifeguard.

Ten minutes away, the Anglesea Golf Club boasts its own population of kangaroos. (Legend has it that Leon's dad unintentionally clocked one during a tournament). We found a pack resting beneath a tree. With their powerful hops and their gentle, friendly faces, kangaroos are cool, funny animals. One napped, its eyes closed and its head resting on the grass. They were mellow until we got a few paces away; then they all began to get up and move away.

On we drove in Leon's car, past the resort town of Lorne and the Otways National Forest. At some points, the beach came up near the road; at others, there was a steep and unprotected cliff drop to the water. But all along, there was the cold-blue ocean, and the bony smooth gum trees, and the beach. After a beer at a beachside pub, I learned how to dive into and under the waves, grabbing at the sand with my fingers and lying on the sea bottom while the waves pulsed over me.

That night, the Southern Cross hung low in a clear sky. This distinctive formation of five stars can only be seen in the southern hemisphere, and appears on the Australian flag, along with the Union Jack and the star of the Commonwealth. Having never been below the equator, I marveled at these "new" stars. I thought about how Australia considers itself a "western" country, lumping itself with the United States and Great Britain. Yet geographically, Australia is about as far from these countries as it can get; its nearest neighbor is Papua New Guinea. Even though Australia shares the Southern Cross with the rest of the Southern Hemisphere, it seems perfectly appropriate to use the constellation as a national symbol; I contemplated how the country's lonely location is such an important part of what it is, and what it will become.



Photos by Francesca Del Gobbo

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