Chasing Horizons #29b : More Melbourne Friends

More Melbourne Friends

Not surprisingly, on Monday I took it very easy whilst my friends went about their normal daily routines. I did make a decision to spend another week in Melbourne as being with fellow Capetonians made me feel very settled and my thoughts were beginning to long for my own settled life in my cosy flat back home. I couldn’t yet face the prospect of packing up my backpack and hitting road again.

That evening I did meet up with some more friends living in Melbourne. The first stage of my trip around the world was back in March when I joined a group of Intrepid travellers on an overland road trip from Delhi to Kathmandu. Cindy and Dean were part of the group and we became firm friends, sharing many laughs and experiences.

But first I had to find them in Melbourne. After talking to Dean on the phone he gave me some vague direction to a bar I could meet him in. The directions were shaky at best and with my limited knowledge of the tram routes around Melbourne’s suburbs it’s no surprise I got lost. I phoned Dean again to explain where I was but with his own sense of direction he would struggle to find his way out of a brown paper bag. It took poor Cindy, making a detour en route from work to find me. After picking me up we drove to the place where I was supposed to be to meet Dean. My solo attempt hadn’t even got me close.

Dean is one of those permanent students, always taking perpetual study courses, working toward a graduation that never seems to get any closer. I had left it four days before looking him up because he was in the middle studying and today was his last day of writing exams. Cindy and I found Dean and a fellow student celebrating in a bar which I was assured would be half decent. This bar was typical of what Australians call decent, it had red pile carpets set off with chrome and glass furniture which displayed a distinct lack of taste. All around televisions screened a variety of horse, dogs and cart racing and along the walls were banks of “pokie” machines. The patrons were mainly down and out unemployable types that wouldn’t be able to make the decision whether to spend their benefit cheques on betting on a “sure thing” or a schooner of beer.

Anyway it was great to see Cindy and Dean again. Of course, I ragged them about the bars they seemed to hanging around in but they assured me that the one we were currently in was once a respectable and nice hotel. When I went to the bar I couldn’t quite figure out whether to place a bet or get a round of drinks in.

We decided to move on and get some supper. What better way to sit around and reminisce about our Indian adventure than to go for a curry. This time Dean chose a quaint little neighbourhood restaurant that served excellent dishes. All throughout our travels in India and Nepal Cindy and Dean steadfastly refused to eat meat, thinking that their enforced vegetarianism would minimise the risk of contracting the dreaded Deli Belly. I used to take exception with them telling them that one of the reasons for travelling to far exotic places was to experience the local cuisines and they were missing out. There could have been method in their madness though because they survived the whole trip without contracting any stomach ailments whereas I had some very dodgy moments on a train journey in Northern India and in Kathmandu.

So I told them many stories about my travels through South-Asia and we laughed and joked well into the late evening. They kindly agreed to drop me off back in St Kilda, obviously not wanting to trust my sense of direction in the trams at such a late hour. We agreed to meet up later in the week again, in fact we made lots of plans of things we needed to do over the following week. This meant that, instead of pushing on to Australia’s East coast like I should as time was moving on, I would stay an extra week in Melbourne. I was only too happy to do this, it meant doing nothing in particular for a week instead of the daily rush to sightseeing or catching buses.

So for the rest of the week I lived an unexciting life of a Melbourne resident. I even got the full run of Juan and Rene’s flat and the use of Juan’s fancy Holden Coupe. On Thursday they caught a flight to Brisbane as they were taking part in the popular triathlon held in nearby Noosa. The night before they left we were having sundowners at a trendy waterside bar called Revo when the subject of me travelling to Queensland was discussed. Of course, I was tempted as I would be travelling to the East coast when I eventually left Melbourne. But to tell you the truth I was quite happy and settled where I was for the time being.

I met up with yet another old friend for lunch. Laurie was part of a group of female rugby fanatics I met in Dublin in November 1997. We had all travelled from London to watch the All Blacks take on Ireland. I struck up a great relationship with the girls based around drinking and rugby so naturally back in London we became great friends until we all went our separate ways. Now Laurie was married and settled here in Australia with her young daughter.

It was a lovely bright spring day and St. Kilda was lively and teeming with young, trendy types. The suburb was a fashionable seaside resort which gradually declined. By the 60’s it was pretty seedy and decadent. Attracted by the image of faded glories and low rents many immigrants, refugees and bohemians moved into the area. Now St. Kilda has undergone a resurgence in popularity of late and it is colourful and full of extremes. Laurie and I met under the laughing face which frames the entrance to Luna Park, an old-style amusement park and symbol of St. Kilda since 1912 and certainly adds to the charm of the region. We walked down the main thoroughfare of Acland Street which was full of interesting shops and eateries. Many open topped sports cars cruised up and down the strip and many junkies lined the pavements. We went to the Vineyard Restaurant which shows little evidence of the late-night club that occurs there on weekends. We sat around being fussed over by a tentative waitress. The whole scene could not have been further away from the cold, dank days we had spent together in London.

I spent most of the weekday evenings by catching a tram into Melbourne’s CBD. Gazza met me for dinner one evening, this time at a dinkum pub in town, not a pokie machine in sight. On Thursday, 31 October Cindy, Dean and I went for supper at the Blue Train. It was Halloween and there was a festive air about the town. We also went into a lovely shop which sold only liqueurs. The nice thing was that you were able to taste each drink, like you do at a wine tasting. There was a vast variety to choose from, and my Dad, who is quite partial to the tipple when it comes to liqueurs, would love the place.

On Friday night I was invited to stay over at Cindy and Dean’s place. They had invited some friends around for dinner and I was persuaded utilise my Thai cooking skills and rustle up some dishes. In the afternoon Dean and I went off in search of ingredients. Melbourne is a very spread out city with suburbs stretching in all directions. Cindy and Dean live on the eastern outskirts. Even so far from the city centre these area are well served by large shopping centres and areas full of speciality shops. We found what I needed at a nearby Asian market.

I returned and set about working in Cindy’s kitchen. The beauty about cooking Thai dishes is that with the correct ingredients and correct preparation the actual cooking time is relatively short. In no time at all I triumphantly placed on the dinning room table a Tom Yam Soup and Panaeng Yellow Curry. The meal was an instant hit and not a morsel was left on everyone’s plates (I must admit I did excel myself with the soup, it was delicious).

Saturday dawned and Cindy, Dean and I planned to drive west out of Melbourne for the day.

Our first stop though was in an innocuous little suburb nearby Cindy and Dean’s house. The actual name of the road where we pulled over was Pin-Oak Court… but is more famously known as Ramsey Street and is the main setting for the world famous hit Australian soap called Neighbours.

I have never understood people’s fixation with TV soaps. Worldwide, ordinary men and women, young and old, sit on their sofas finding consolation in the trials and tribulations of characters with big hair and shiny teeth. Now I have to say you really do have problems when you come home to find your girlfriend in bed with her long dead husband who is really your own father. But it’s like the viewers have convinced themselves that this is some real life drama being played out just down the road and not on their TV screens.

Pin-Oak Court or Ramsey Street is a short cul-de-sac full of well-to-do residents living in quite upmarket houses. Quite a few notches up the property ladder than those found at Coronation Street or Eastenders. We walked past an open road barrier at the end of the street. It is obviously quite expected for tourists to visit during the daytime but the road is closed off in the evenings. As we walked the gentle hill with a handful of other strangers I saw residents going about there normal business, washing cars and loading garden refuse onto trucks. Filming takes place only for a short period of time each year and only the exterior shots – all the interior scenes are shot at the nearby Channel 7 studios. The home owners are paid handsomely for the use of their street but is still must be a bit disconcerting having a stream of television addicts constantly parading up and down outside your house.

I though the whole experience was a but voyeuristic but Cindy and Dean must be avid Neighbours addicts, because they walked up and down the short road pointing and saying “oh, there’s number 30!”, or “there’s Harold’s house and that’s the Kennedy’s, isn’t it?” and after recounting some past episode saying, “is that one Lou’s or is it that one over there?” Sad really.

Back in the car we drove onto and past central Melbourne and headed south-west over the soaring West Gate Bridge onto the Princes Highway for about an hour to Geelong. This historic city is situated on Corio Bay, which in turn is the western part of Port Phillip Bay and was a boom town during the gold rush days. These days it is almost thought of as a suburb of Melbourne and is famous for its AFL football team and the huge Ford assembly factory.

The three of us were on our way to look up Dennis, a fellow travel companion and my roommate for the duration of our trip through India and Nepal. We found his small, single storey house no problem. Dennis creates stained glass artwork from a workshop in his home and we were impressed with the many pieces that hung around his house. It was also great to catch up on each others news, we showed each other our respective photo albums and recounted many humorous stories. It was a real “Delhi to Kathmandu” travel reunion.

For tea we bought some takeaway fish and chips and beer and headed for the beachfront. The weather was a bit changeable so it wasn’t long before we had to find refuge under the roof of a nearby pavilion. Here we chatted away merrily for nearly an hour. Eventually we were debating amongst ourselves whether to make a move when the decision was made for us. We were told by some of the attendants that we were not allowed to drink beer under the pavilion roof. Alongside in the grass – in the rain – would be OK but not where it was dry, so we left.

It was a long drive back into town in the dark. However, once home I still had one more call to make before the evening was over. You see how I had settled quickly into a relatively normal way of life? This time it was to some South African couples. I had made Jacko’s acquaintance whilst playing golf the previous weekend and he had invited me around along with some of his other SA’fer mates for a good old potjie – a meal of meat and vegetables cooked in a cast iron pot over an open fire. I arrived late but still in time to socialize with a bunch of ex-pat South Africans speaking Afrikaans and listening to African music.

I made it back home in the wee hours of Sunday morning and so came the end of a very long and enjoyable day.

Tuesday, 5 November. Guy Fawkes Night? Not in Australia. It is probably the main reason why I had extended my stay as everyone will tell you that Melbourne is the place to be on the first Tuesday in November. This is when the greatest of horse races is run, the prestigious Melbourne Cup – it is Australia’s most famous and richest horse race and the whole country is brought to a standstill. The day has even been declared a pubic holiday in the state of Victoria. It is the main highlight the city’s Spring Racing Carnival where racing is staged for a whole month around the actual big race and the entire city gets caught up with racing fever.

Of course I had no chance of getting tickets to the Victorian Racing Club’s Flemington’s Racecourse. The beautiful lawns and grandstand is the domain of the serious punters and fashion conscious race goers. I, like many people only bet on the horses once or twice a year. Around the country, many Cup syndicates are organised by groups of friends. I was going to join the one organised by Cindy, Dean and friends.

Early morning I once again drove through Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. Around the country I had seen many picnic spots where local authorities had installed coin operated gas barbeques to cash in on Australia’s population to be naturally outdoors and sociable. So Dean had assumed that we needed to get to our picnic spot early to secure one of these cooking spots. However, the local municipality had not bowed to these modern cash generating schemes because Glen Waverly Park still had old style fire pans with wire grid barbeques. At intervals large skips full of wooden off cuts had been brought in to be burned. We found some picnic benches, got a fire started and pretty soon many of Dean and Cindy’s family and friends had arrived. There were many gatherings all over Glen Waverly Park; in fact the whole place was like one big family picnic. Many noisy cricket games were on the go, sometimes it was hard to tell where one game finished and the next started. Fathers, sons and uncles from many family groups got together in an impromptu game of soccer.

After a hearty lunch of barbequed chicken and sausages with salads and bread rolls, the men headed off for the nearest pub. Again, the pub was more like a off-course tote with a bar, the surrounding walls covered with TV’s and plenty of opportunity to have a flutter (they have even dreamt up a novel way of parting the punter from his money – virtual horse races, complete with computer graphics). By the time we had grabbed some beers and found a corner to watch the race the pub was packed to the rafters. The atmosphere was electric. From the off punters started screaming for their preferred horse. The cheering built to a crescendo by the time the field had completed the 3200m course.

The 142nd running of the Melbourne Cup was emotionally won by Media Puzzle, ridden by Damien Oliver. The grieving jockey, who rode Doriemus to victory in 1995, almost missed the race after his older brother Jason was killed in a training accident earlier in the week. Oliver also lost his father in a race fall in 1975 and decided to ride as a tribute to the pair, wearing his brother’s breeches during the race. He was definitely the public’s favourite and after the race with tears streaming he told the crowd: “The Melbourne Cup doesn’t mean anything to me any more. I’d give it away right now to have my brother back.”

All stirring stuff really and what legends are made of. For me I spectacularly bombed out with my bets although I did back Beekeeper, who edged past the bookies favourite and stable mate to the eventual winner, Vinnie Roe to grab third. By the time I realised I was due a payout I had already left Victoria and the Tote doesn’t payout out on tickets placed in different states. This is just typical of my luck, which is another reminder for me to never become the gambling type.

The day was over by early evening and I said my goodbyes to Dean and Cindy. It was my penultimate day in Melbourne so it would be the last time I would see them. Late that evening Juan and Rene returned from Brisbane so I would be handing back their car and flat and my cushy bachelor lifestyle came to its end.

Next day I prepared to depart Melbourne. I loved my time in the city and if anyone asks me I reckon those travellers that make their way Down Under but only seem to settle in Sydney are missing out on the country’s best city. I would love to live in Melbourne.

I met up with Juan after work on Wednesday and we had a whistle stop pub crawl through some of his favourite CBD pubs. I have always enjoyed my time hanging out with Juan and I will miss him terribly. I hope our paths cross again soon somewhere in the world. At 8pm, in solemn moods we drove one last time past the magnificent Melbourne skyline. Juan detoured over the West Gate Bridge so I could have one last look at the fine views of the city, chatting as we headed north to the airport knowing it would be quite a while before we saw each other again. Thanks Juan and Rene for all you did for me in Melbourne, see you soon in Cape Town.