After leaving the Great Ocean Road, we arrived in Melbourne just before rush hour on Wednesday, 20th February. Our home for the next three nights was an AirBnB on the 15th floor of a modern block of flats in the Southbank area. We collected our keys from an external lockbox, attached to a particular lamp post to whose location we had received detailed directions. All very dead letter drop tradecraft. We then transported our luggage up to the apartment. Luckily, the flat had indoor private parking and a lift so the move-in process was easy. We had spectacular views from our small balcony, with what was probably the less glamorous perspective, looking away from the city, out over the motorway and towards the sea.
After getting settled in the apartment, we headed out to see a little of the city and do a little shopping for essentials – tea and milk being essentials for us. We walked up to the Yarra, the river that runs through the centre of the city and which has been recently redeveloped into a vibrant riverfront leisure area, with broad walkways and numerous cafes, bars and restaurants. When I say broad walkways, the routes are actually shared cycle/pedestrian paths. Prominent signs beseech cyclists to ride slowly, but these imprecations are ignored by many who seem eager to use pedestrians as obstacles on a slalom course. The rate of travel chosen by many of them is really quite disturbing. Apparently, Melbourne hasn’t had a cyclist-related pedestrian death since 2006, but numerous serious injuries have occurred.
You’ll be pleased to hear we survived our riverside walk, and Ishbel even managed to get a photo of a black-crowned night heron perched quite casually on a small dock.
Overcome with the excitement of this sighting, and tired from the full on travel of the last couple of days, we dined at home and had an early night.
Thursday saw us up early and attacking the day. Research had alerted us to the fact that Melbourne offered free public transport within the centre of the city and, in fact, had a free tourist tram that circled the city.
This was a bargain not to be missed so we walked from our flat across to the north side of the river and past Melbourne’s art nouveau masterpiece: Flinders St Railway Station.
From here, we were able to catch the tram and see quite a bit of the city centre. I was keeping an eye open for a barber as I decided I needed another all over head trim. When I eventually found one, it was in a department store so almost certainly overpriced.
We visited a number of the tourist sites, including Melbourne Gaol. This was a fascinating visit since, as well as covering the history of the building and the legal structures that prevailed at various times in Victoria’s history, a number of cells included background stories of former inmates, the most famous/notorious of whom was Ned Kelly.
Having read these tales of hardship and misfortune, I’m surprised that so many people decided that a life in the New World was a path to fortune. I’m absolutely shocked that any women ever chose to migrate since they in particular seemed condemned to live life on a precarious knife-edge between meagre subsistence and utter ruin. Who knows what life in their home country must have been like when this was seen as a better option.
Sobered by the gaol experience, we headed back to the flat to freshen up before our evening adventure. Our host from Adelaide, A, was in Melbourne on business while, coincidentally, his son was also there as part of his graduate training course, so we met up with both of them in the evening for a couple of drinks and a catch up.
Friday started slowly. But, then again, we were in no rush. Our Friday activity had been planned in advance: we had booked the VIP visit to see the Little Penguins on Phillip Island. This was a two hour drive from Melbourne, and the penguins generally start coming ashore at dusk. Our ticket was for a tour starting at 8pm, but we wanted to have a leisurely drive down there and stop in a couple of places on the way. We set off just after noon and cruised down the road a way.
We decided to stop first at Bassine Specialty Cheeses for a tasting, We had passed a couple of wineries, but Ishbel wasn’t keen on them and I didn’t want to drink anything as there was a long day of driving ahead so cheese seemed like a good alternative. They had some lovely locally made cheeses available for tasting, and a spectacular cheesecake which we enjoyed with a coffee. After this we continued on the road. And quickly encountered a road block where Australia’s finest were performing random breathalyser tests. I was lucky enough to be one of the drivers pulled aside to be tested. I passed, as did all the drivers in our little group and we were quickly on our way again. Let that be a warning to you if you decide to go wine tasting in Victoria without a designated driver.
We carried on to Churchill Island and stopped there for a walk around the nature reserve. We enjoyed a leisurely stroll, until we realised that the bridge back over to the mainland closed at 5pm and by this time it was 4:45, so we increased our pace and made it safely back on to our route. We decided that we would stop for dinner in the next large settlement which turned out to be a town called Cowes. We ate in an Italian restaurant there which was quiet when we arrived but shortly afterward started getting very busy. First, there was a load of people in Kawasaki gear showed up. Then a bunch of people dressed in Yamaha branded clothing. Then a group in Honda garb.
We then realised why we had seen so many motorbikes on the road – and possibly why the cops had their breathalyser roadblock in place this weekend. It transpired that this weekend was Round One of the World Superbike Championship, and it was taking place at the Grand Prix circuit in Phillip Island. Who knew? Everybody who wasn’t excited about seeing penguins, apparently.
We finished our dinner and made our way down to the visitor centre where I enjoyed a quick power nap in the car before we headed in for our tour. The problem with the experience is that photography is banned completely. Flash photography can startle, disorientate, or even blind penguins so there used to be a ban on the use of flash. Unfortunately, some people just cannot comply with simple instructions so they have been forced to introduce a blanket ban on photography so it’s impossible to show any photos of the huge numbers of penguins returning from an extended feeding trip waddling across the beach to reach their burrows so they can feed their chicks, or begin the moulting process to renew their feathers. However, we were able to spot one cheeky youngster who was out of his burrow before night fell hoping for a parent to return early and provide a feed.
The penguin experience was excellent, and we had cleverly parked our car close to the exit to allow a rapid getaway at the end to get ourselves back to Melbourne. This was our last night in Australia as the following morning it was time to pack up and make the relatively short hop to New Zealand. A country I would be visiting for the first time and which Ishbel hadn’t set foot in for nearly forty years. Auckland, here we come.