Back in 1996, Juan, a young computer analyst, joined the company I was working for. Juan also lived close to where I lived at the time and we struck up a friendship around many happy lunchtime and after work drinking sessions. In 1998 I had been working in London for a few months when I got a call from Juan. The lure of the strong UK currency, against our pathetic weak Rand was an attraction neither of us could resist. During that year we spent many nights and weekends exploring London’s bars, pubs and club scene. We had a good group of friends, and had some great times, life doesn’t get much better than this. The two of us also traveled to rugby games, ski trips and weekends in New York. Also around this time we met Rene, a fellow scatteling from South Africa.
I haven’t seen the two of them since February 2001 when all three of us were on an extended visit home and we took a trip around the Southern African coast. The two of them were on their way to Australia and myself back to London for a final year of earning British pounds. Juan and Rene are now engaged to be married and are living in Melbourne. They had kindly invited me to come and stay with them.
Juan and Rene collected me at Spencer Street station in the heart of Melbourne’s CBD. I sat waiting amongst my many bags and boxes and I thought to myself, “How do I collect all this junk? I never learn.”
Juan soon drove up in his shiny, metallic blue Holden Coupe, exactly the same model and colour as the car he owned back home, except Holden is called Opel in South Africa. They were casual but smartly dressed in their designer jeans and leather jackets. The two of them oozed an affluent yuppie lifestyle. It made me very conscious of my own appearance in dirty jeans, wrinkled t-shirt and scruffy backpack. But we were pleased to see each other; a familiar face so far from home is always a welcome sight.
Juan and Rene’s apartment is in the trendy St Kilda suburb on the coast of Philip Bay, about a ten minute drive from Melbourne. No sooner had we arrived and I was shown to my room when Juan characteristically announced that we were going out for drinks with some colleagues of his. The Stoke House bar and grill was just down the road, overlooking the bay. We had time to catch up on what had happened in each others lives these past 20 months. I still felt conspicuous about my scruffy attire; I made a promise to myself to acquire some new clothes whilst I was in Melbourne. We drank well into the night, carrying on at the flat long after last orders had been called at the bar.
Next day it was Friday, October 25, time to explore Melbourne. Juan got up ridiculously early to get off to work, I didn’t even hear him leave. Rene and I sat around having breakfast and chatting whilst I did my laundry, but she soon left to attend lectures or a gym class. I wanted to explore Melbourne’s CBD so by late morning I too left for the city centre.
Following Juan’s instructions I followed his route to work. He told me to catch #112 tram which runs past the front of his apartment. Melbourne’s trams are wonderful, giving the greater area a very European look. No matter where you are, either in the city centre or passing through some outlying suburb you are bound to head down a main arterial following a set of tram lines or encounter one of the rattling machines. The trams themselves come in all shapes and sizes from ultra modern to style suite to the 1940′s and 1950′s. My favourite was the free tram which circled around the CBD, utilising some old green rolling stock with paneled interiors. There was an even older tram used as a roving restaurant. This didn’t follow any particular route instead just went where the whim of the driver took it.
Melbourne CBD is also laid out in a tight grid just north of the Yarra River. I was a chilly spring day as the tram took me into Collins Street which ran in a west/east direction. I alighted about two thirds of the way along the street to take a look at the city, and it was love at first sight. Large banks and insurance companies had built tall, modern shrines in glass and metal, which dominated the Melbourne skyline but still the grand old edifices of traditional Victorian and Edwardian styles seemed to survive. On this grim, grey day Melbournites hurried around wrapped up against the nippy air. It reminded me so much of London except the clanging trams that cris-crossed on the many city streets made it all the more unique and quaint in a big city sort of way.
I had barely enough time to run errands before I had to meet Juan and some more of his work colleagues for lunch at some trendy, city slicker restaurant.
In one day I had made a 180ï¿½ shift in lifestyle from “roaming backpacker” to “urban yuppie”. So after lunch I put a call to my old mate Gazza who had been a good travel companion through South-East Asia earlier in the year. In July whilst in Thailand we went our separate ways. He beat a hasty path to Sydney but only made it as far as Melbourne in his travels through Australia and was now somewhat settled too. Fortunately he was on his lunch break and we hastily arranged a reunion over a few beers and caught up on each others news.
Late in the afternoon I was able to explore the city further whilst also seeing to my long neglected onward travel plans. I had to cut out the Mexico leg of my trip and shelve the plans to travel a bit through Central America. Some other time maybe, but I can tell you it was a weight off my shoulders to finally have firm dates set for all the flights.
By evening it was once again time to meet up with Juan and true to form I found him down some back street at the Icon Bar where free drinks where being served for an hour. Again I was introduced to many of Juan’s new mates. Nothing changes with this guy, no matter which town in whatever corner of the world he will find the festive crowd. Not surprisingly it was late when we eventually made our way down and along the Yarra River. We met Rene who had come into town for a night out and had a pleasant supper at an awfully popular establishment, the Blue Train, which overlooked the river with the Melbourne CBD lit up as a backdrop.
Once we were all well fed, a crowd of us moved on to the largest casino complex in the southern hemisphere. The Crown Casino is cavernous with many levels of every sort of entertainment man can dream up. My memory of the night starts to fade around now but I do remember being impressed by the grand scale everything is done within the Crown Casino. There are lush carpets throughout, coloured lights and mirrors everywhere. I did feel somewhat intimidated by the crowds though. I felt that there was a sleazy element of people being attracted into the casino complex. Many young men sported jet black, slicked back, oiled hair, black leather jackets and shiny shoes.
Needless to say I did leave early. I left Juan and Rene dancing the night away in some night club. I was being budget conscious and wanted to be able to catch the tram, which ran right past the front entrance to the casino, back to Juan’s flat before they stopped running for the night.
Next day was Saturday and nobody was working. I had mentioned that I wanted to visit Portsea and Juan took this as an opportunity load us all into his shiny blue car for a weekend drive.
Melbourne and its suburbs are sprawled around Port Phillip Bay with the CBD located a little way inland on the north bank of the Yarra River which enters the bay along its north shore. Port Phillip Bay itself is a vast inlet of water nearly completely encircled by the mainland. The Western Bellarine and Eastern Mornington Peninsulas reach across and leave a small opening into the Bass Strait through the treacherous Port Phillip Heads.
Juan drove us out south east from Melbourne. Here trendy cosmopolitan suburbs line the north eastern shore of the bay. It was a bright sunny day and the road hugged the coastline along with the metropolitan railway line. The seaside suburbs we passed through such as Brighton Beach and Frankston were very desirable places to live. After a drive of about an hour or so and still within a stone’s throw of the bay we were on the Mornington Peninsula which separates Port Philip and Western Port which is to the east (don’t ask – this is Australia remember). Towns along this peninsula were originally summer resorts for Melbournites but today, with improved road and rail links and the introduction of a cross port ferry service, many residents can commute into the city centre.
We headed to our eventual destination within the Mornington Peninsula National Park. This is where in 1967 Australia was lost a Prime Minister. I kid you not, this country lost its serving Head of State, one moment he was there running the country, the next he was gone.
The government in 1967 was faced with many domestic problems and the rumours were that the tenure of the PM was floundering. Harold Holt was cast as a ’007′ wetsuit-clad James Bond character by the popular press because of his enthusiasm for water sports and apparently he was quite a hit with the ladies. On a beautiful sultry day, just before the Christmas he entered the water at about noon and was never seen again.
There were rumours that the PM might have been suicidal because of the recent death of his brother and threats to his leadership. Some of the wilder theories had it that Holt was assassinated by the CIA because of his policies on Australia’s involvement in Vietnam. Or that he swam around to the next bay, hopped in a car driven by a lover, and slipped out of the country and later died of a heart attack on the French South Coast sometime during the 1980s. My personal favourite is the claim that Holt was a Chinese spy and fled Australia via a Chinese submarine parked off his beach.
The rumours are fanned by the official cover-up because the public had been falsely led to believe that only one other male companion had been with Holt. In fact, the PM had been on the beach with an alleged lover and another young woman. Possibly he wanted to ‘show off’ in front of the two women, and had entered a dangerous sea displaying his customary fearlessness. Even the investigating police reported that Holt fell for his own publicity about his swimming prowess, and in fact the PM, “believed he couldn’t drown.” Every summer, Australians of all ages do foolish things in the water, and drown. Holt was not a strong swimmer, he had a sore shoulder and at 59 years of age you don’t have the reserves to draw on that you used to have. He probably, and literally, got himself in “a little too deep”.
Thirty years on, conspiracy theories still rage on about what happened to Australia’s Prime Minister and there still are many questions left unanswered.
Juan drove us on to Portsea, the most westerly settlement on the Peninsula and named after a suburb of Portsmouth in England. On the southern coastal side we passed through a few fine bays overlooking Bass Strait. Normally I would say these looked like fine surfing beaches but although today was sunny it was unpleasant to stand outside, the breeze cut right through to the bone. The rough seas were covered with white caps, whipped up by the strong wind. It looked angry and uninviting, why anyone would risk their lives by taking a swim is beyond me.
The Australians, however, are not without their sense of humour though. This part of the coastline is named the Harold Holt Marine Reserve and hides treacherous submerged rocks and dangerous rips and breakers. They have even taken the ironic humour to a higher level and named a municipal swimming pool in Southern Melbourne after Mr. Holt.
Portsea’s main residential settlement though is on the Bay side of the peninsula. There are many fine mansions and holiday retreats and a pleasant hotel where the bar has fine views sheltered from the wind. Us three rather windswept tourists made our way to the bar and found refuge for a few hours chatting away and enjoying the sun. On our way back into Melbourne Juan took a detour up to Arthur’s Seat, a ridge to the west where an outlook offered spectacular views across Port Phillip Bay.
October 16, 2002 saw the climax of the domestic rugby season in both the New Zealand NPC and South Africa’s Currie Cup. The Australian Wallabies are arch rivals of the All Blacks and Springboks so local interest was high, both finals being televised. Typically, Juan had no shortage of friends lined up to watch the game. In fact, when we arrived at some trendy suburban townhouses the house was packed with ex-pat Kiwi’s and the live telecast from New Zealand, which was two hours ahead, was well underway. A good evening was had cheering teams and discussing our relative countries’ rugby prowesses. Pizzas were ordered and consumed along with the obligatory bottles of beer. Unfortunately, once again due to the vulgarities of international time the Currie Cup final was not televised from South Africa, eight hours behind, until very late that night. By which time Juan and I had somehow made it back to his flat and were tucked up and passed out, one on each of his couches. We missed the entire match.
On Sunday Juan and I strolled through Albert Park which has heaps of recreational facilities. This is also the venue for the Australian Formula One Grand Prix. Once a year the entire park is converted into a international standard Grand Prix circuit with the roadways around and through the park become the racing track I saw evidence of what it must be like as we walked up the start/finish straight and saw the painted lines of the starting grid. Temporary concrete bollards have been placed at intervals along the straight to prevent and any would be Michael Schumachers from being tempted to putting in a practice lap.
On passing the deserted pit lane and team garages and we arrived at the Albert Park Golf Course built around a picturesque lake. Juan had arranged for me to join him and take part in a golf day. Now I do profess to owning a set of golf clubs back home but my golf game is atrocious and handicap non-existent. In fact, I was not looking forward to playing at all, imagining myself hacking around the eighteen holes being the laughing stock of the rest of the four-ball unfortunate enough to be landed with me.
Juan was again true to form. The group that had arranged the golf day was a group of ex-pat South Africans and it was a pleasure to be amongst fellow countrymen so far away from home. Surprisingly, I really enjoyed the round of golf too. Using what little experience I had, I knew that trying to hit the spots off the golf ball would result on many wild shots and lost balls. I played very conservatively never even using the wood clubs in my hired golf bag. I got around with my golfing credibility intact, not losing even one ball and having some very impressive chips and putts. Don’t ask to see my score card though, our four-ball leader kept score and I have no idea and no desire to know how it read.
Juan and Rene never slow down. On Sunday evening we met up with another work colleague, Mike, who I had also previously met in London. Juan took us to the Belgium Beer Bar as he is quite partial to Belgian Beer. You would think that Juan would want an early night with it being the night before work. Oh no! Later on that evening we made our way to St. Kilda’s musical and artistic heart and soul, the Hotel Esplanade, or the Espy as it is affectionately known. It is an old style colonial hotel with yellowed white gloss walls and dark floral carpets complete with cigarette burns. It is still popular with the locals packing the place at the late hour on Sunday; a band was playing loudly when we entered. The bar was smoky and had a distinct grungy atmosphere.
Still not satisfied when closing time was called at the Espy, we moved a little further down the road to Vineyard Restaurant. Here, what seemed to be an unassuming place had had all the tables and chairs cleared and a DJ was spinning the latest club tunes. We danced and chatted until God knows when. I was glad to get home after a long day. It had been a hectic few days with Juan and Rene but very tiring.