Posts Tagged ‘travel’

It was time to get away from the city – and time to get a little off the beaten track: no more Mornington, Great Ocean Road, Yarra Valley or the Dandenongs.

90 Mile Beach, on Victoria’s south coast beyond Sale and towards Lake Entrance, seemed to fit the bill: hardly anyone had been there and there was little written about it online (what comments there were tended to be of the “It’s our secret, we don’t want lots of people coming” variety).

Bruce and Fran had a new tent to try out before the music festival season kicked off (yes, this is being written several months after the fact; see below) and Parks Victoria operated 20 free campsites on a stretch of the beach, itself a long (90 miles long apparently), straight strip (a spit perhaps?) lined with sand dunes, that encases an inland waterway.

Ninety Mile Beach

The township of Seaspray sits at one end with Paradise Beach marking the eastern end of the free camping area (although the beach continues some distance beyond there). Neither appear to have much going on, although being five days before Christmas, it probably wasn’t peak season. Still, peaceful serenity was the aim of the trip.

Unfortunately peaceful serenity was the last thing on Fran’s mind once the Hoonmobile began swinging through the free campsites. Perhaps it was the terrifying experience of stopping off in Traralgon for supplies – more fast food joints than brain cells and enough potential Biggest Loser winners to keep Channel Ten execs decked out in gold chains well into their retirement – that had her feeling all Wolf Creek. Or perhaps it was the fact that every campsite appeared to be populated entirely by Ute-driving men with mean-looking facial hair wearing lumberjack shirts, heavy boots and meaner glares.

“Can’t we just go and try the one at Paradise Beach?” she asked after the sixth of 20 had been searched, revealing the only pitch far enough from anyone else to be full of mosquitos and post-wipe tissue paper.

It was a fruitless request: Paradise was full to bursting with men of similar appearance, but this time they’d brought their trucks and what appeared to be armour-plated buses. Given the Australian surf fishing championships take place here every January they were all probably there to get in a little practice (either that or it was the Australian Bear Association’s pre-Chrimbo hugging convention). Still, the Hoonmobile was turned around and pointed back to Seaspray.

Fran’s courage pricked by the fact that none of the sites they’d visited earlier contained trucks, they returned to the earlier campsites with a fresh determination. This determination drove Bruce to believe the Hoonmobile had enough floor clearance to drive over a sawn off tree in the middle of the soft, sandy ground. He was wrong. Neither forward nor reverse would shift the car. It took Fran hopping into the driver’s seat and Bruce recalling his days as a prop forward to get it moving – even then with an unhealthy farting noise from the exhaust.

Eventually they settled, finding a quiet spot 100 yards from the sea’s edge and a short walk from the toilet. Tent erection in comparison to what went before was a breeze – aided by the opening of a Cooper’s Pale or two – and soon they were on the beach.

Talk about getting away from it: in the two days they were there, no more than a dozen people could be spotted within 10km in either direction on the beach – and no one ventured down there after dark (either the men were eating the day’s catch or hugging manfully), making every crash of the waves on the shore their own. Saturday’s weather was good enough for a spot of sunbathing, the water almost warm enough for a swim (well, a jump given the ferocity of the waves) and a smorgasbord of dazzling shells lined the water’s edge (and now a bathroom in Collingwood).

A well-stocked esky, a box of red as good as boxes of red can be, portable Ipod speakers and a pair of folding chairs made for comfortable star-gazing (and the glowing cocktail glasses from Wicked! made up for the torch dying). They even got deep, concluding something along the lines of:

“Even though the sun gives the Earth its energy, perhaps it’s actually there to keep us stupid, to keep us from being too ambitious. After all, it’s only when the light has disappeared from the sky that you get to see the sky as it really is and realise what is out there. The blue sky of the day is like a blanket hiding us from reality, like in The Truman Show.”

And so on…

They even saw a UFO on the second night. Both spotted a particularly bright flashing light that hadn’t been there the day before or indeed a few minutes earlier. It wasn’t moving like a satellite. Then, after a few seconds, it started moving rapidly away, heading diagonally eastwards and upwards until it disappeared.

“Did you see that too?” they asked each other, later recounting the moment excitedly to their neighbour, himself not averse to spaced-out nights on the beach, who rather mundanely pointed out that it wasn’t so much a UFO as an O: apparently satellites do move like that sometimes.

Appeal letter two in the mail

Appeal letter two in the mail

By that point they were home and about to discover that the damage to the exhaust was going to cost $350 to repair. They’ve just had a bill through from Vic Police to say they used a stretch of the Eastlink getting there, haven’t paid the toll and now owe a further $113. Some free camping trip.


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The world's largest paddlesteamer flotilla cruises on by

The world's largest paddlesteamer flotilla cruises on by

The British nature has a lot to answer for. As part of Mr and Mrs Bruce snr’s three-week whistlestop tour of Oz, they’d been booked onto a dinner cruise aboard the P.S. Emmylou, one of Echuca’s vintage paddlesteamers. Despite a price tag of $95 a head for three courses, Bruce and Fran headed there with expectations low.

Perhaps it’s the result of childhoods spent at lacklustre seaside resorts such as Margate (in Bruce’s case) and its former Bembom Brothers amusement park or Southend (in Fran’s) where, prior to the smoking ban, non-smokers could experience the effects of a 20-year, two packs-a-day habit merely by sitting down to play bingo for half an hour surrounded by monolithic grandmother-mother-and-baby teams in which the baby’s dummy must surely have been covered in nicorette patches. Or perhaps, as many Aussie friends will observe, it’s just the innate doubt of an English test batsman coming to the crease.

Either way, if the choice had been soup or pate followed by fish and chips, burger or vegie pasta for main and ice cream for dessert neither would have been surprised. Perhaps they’d all have to wear sailors’ hats (Fran was quite excited about this) and sing awful seas shanties too.

In the end there was pate – but that’s where the similarities ended. The deck of the Emmylou was set out as well as an old wooden paddlesteamer can be to represent a fine dining establishment – the only criticism being a slight squash to accommodate the Easter Sunday crowd – with a good selection of food and decent wine list. A bottle of bubbly was quaffed as the menu was perused – Japanese okanomi yoki pancakes, brochette of scallops with proscuitto, fennel and rocket, muscovy duck, ocean trout and a platter of ridiculously rich desserts to name just a few.

“Aaarrrrggghhhh! I think I might be having the best time of my life,” screeched an overexcited Fran on more than one occasion as the Emmylou floated past riverside bbqs and cabins lining the north shore of the Murray.

The Bruce family's Easter Sunday dinner drew quite a crowd

The Bruce family's Easter Sunday dinner drew quite a crowd

Then it was time for the main event. At the time of booking, Bruce had been unaware that Easter Sunday was one of two occasions in the year when Echuca’s entire fleet of commercial and privately-owned paddlesteamers gathered for a sail past of the town’s heritage port. So, dessert polished off and red wine still flowing the boat turned around and led a procession past thousands gathered on the quay. Many of the boats lit flares, others sounded their horns (rather confusingly they sound just like those on trains and the footy siren at the MCG), thousands of camera flashes flickered.

Once past the quay, a firework display lit up the sky and Bruce wondered if the folks of Echuca could do anything more to make his parents’ visit memorable.

The following day was accompanied by a chorus of kookaburras on a scale reminiscent of Hollywood’s greatest musical excesses of the 1920s and 30s and a trip even further back in time along Echuca’s historic walk: ducking into the escape tunnel underneath the Star Inn for an impromptu knees-up; posing for an utterly ridiculous Victorian family photo; marvelling at the various nutcases making a living with magic tricks and performing cockatoos – and the woman charging $9 for 100 grams of fudge.

“We should come back here every other weekend,” exclaimed Fran, still giddy from the previous night.

She’ll get her wish, although not quite that often, as at just 2 1/2 hours drive from Melbourne, it would be rude not to return. Proclaiming ownership of “The world’s largest flotilla of paddlesteamers” may be akin to having the world’s largest collection of foil tops from orange Calippo ice lollies made between 1994 and 1997 but Echuca remains a charming corner of Victoria. And it’s not Swan Hill.

"Oooh!" "Wow!"

"Oooh!" "Wow!"

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Calling a pub the Isle of Wight in a town that’s already nicked the name Cowes from said British island is hardly a statement of desire on the part of the locals to strike out from the motherland. So, with their visitors from the UK hoping to experience as much Aussie flavour as possible in their three-week jaunt, it didn’t bode well.

But, as Bruce pushed the door open and began to descend the stairs, the unmistakable strains of Peter Garrett wafted across the bar. No, not reneging on another environmental promise he made before his election to Rudd’s government, but from back in the day

“How can we dance when our earth is turning?

How do we sleep when our beds are burning?”

Propping up the bar were a couple of mullets; behind it was a superb handlebar moustache. A woman from WA with highlights in her hair was soon exhorting Fran and her friend to stick around for karaoke later in the evening. The head of a shark was displayed proudly on the wall behind the bar. The taps offered a selection of unerringly shit beers. Despite the name, it was true Australia, country style, after all.

Keeping with the mood, the visitors plonked their sleeping eight-month-old under the screen showing computer-generated horse-racing and took in their surrounds.

“If ever they were to remake Withnail and I in Australia,” offered Bruce, “this pub could be used for the scene in which he gets accused of being a ‘perfumed ponce’.” Nods of agreement.

Rather disconcertingly, Fran spotted two pictures of a large man in his 60s, sprawled lasciviously across a bed in a state of some undress hanging next to the shark; it was something one might expect to find in certain Collingwood haunts, but not here. One image – the more worrying of the two – had also been made into a clock.

“Country pub ticked off the list?” asked Bruce.

“Check,” said Matt, heading for the door.

Phillip Island was to help him get much ticked off his to do list. Within 100 yards of the first sign warning of wallabies, two wallabies appeared at the side of the road. The trees were full of galahs, Rosellas, koalas and kookaburras. The fridge was filled with cans of Bundy and coke. The randy penguins did their parade on cue.

It mattered little, therefore, that for all the natural beauty of its coastline (inland it’s a bit, well, meh), the island lacked character. The visitor centres had taken the motorway service stations of England as their architectural template and the towns – Rhyll, San Remo, Cowes – offered little of interest: perhaps the kooky folk who’ve inhabited the Yarra Valley, Macedon Ranges, Mornington Peninsula, the Dandenongs and so on are put off by the annual invasion of the Moto GP.

If proof were needed, it was found in the cooked breakfasts; they came with toast – plain, white toast. Now who, in their right mind, thinks they can get away with that in Victoria these days. The people demand sourdough as a very minimum, preferably from some obscure bakery and baked in a totally impractical shape. Honestly, what were the cafe owners thinking?

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A typically happy Melburnian

A typically happy Melburnian

Barely had Bruce and Fran settled into their seats at the Hilton on the Park when they dropped the bombshell:

“The people in Sydney were so much friendlier than here in Melbourne,” said Fran’s visiting schoolfriend.

“Yeah,” seconded her boyfriend. “I’d noticed that too.”

Aghast, Bruce and Fran sprayed their guests with metaphorically spluttered toast. This was a most unforeseen turn of events.

“But… But… What… Why… I don’t get it,” they said, going into mental and physical meltdown.

Only six months in and, by some sort of social osmosis, they’d been consumed by the tired Aussie big city rivalry.

“That can’t be right. Tell us, what’s happened?” they pleaded, their wonderful Melburnian world disintegrating. ‘What can we do to convince them they’re wrong,’ they thought, secretly.


Eighteen hours later, Fran began to well up on a tram as it headed into town past the Domain Interchange. Although the after effects of the drugged up week in hospital and the previous evening’s third bottle of cabernet sauvignon probably had something to do with her rushing emotions, it was the activity on the tram that was the spark.

A gent and his young Asian bride had just asked the driver how they could buy a ticket and been told that, without change, they couldn’t. Then a voice piped up from the rear.

A love of shoes, hey?

A love of shoes, hey?

It was an extravagantly dressed Filipino lady who had already brought forth smiles with a loud and generous appreciation of the boots being worn by a girl across the aisle from her.

“You need change?” she asked. “I got change. How much you need?”

“How much do we need?” asked the startled would be passengers before turning and walking to their saviour.

Five dollars and a crash course in how to use the ticketing machine later and they were in their seats, beaming excitedly. In one moment of generosity, their mood – and probably the remainder of their day – had been turned from miserable and angry to one of joy and relief at the goodness of humankind.

And it didn’t stop there. Inspired by the Filipino lady, people shifted seats and made their way down the aisle to chat to the couple, explaining the vagaries of the ticketing system and inquiring politely into their background. (Looking for refelected glory, perhaps? Or caught up in the spirit of kindness?)

“Oh,” said Fran, overwhelmed, “I could cry.”

“No more red wine for you,” said Bruce.

“How could they say the people here aren’t friendly?” added Fran.

By the end of their visit, her friends had changed their tune without any great effort on the part of their hosts. The city itself, experienced through a hectic weekend of socialising, sporting and wandering, won them over in the end.

Great food, loopy bar staff, stunning winter sunsets at the beach, drunken Sunday evening covers bands, the “G”, Buddy Franklin’s pitch invasion, suburbs that look like the Wild West minus only the horse and carriage, a brush with a mass murderer and the worst Ghost Train ride in the known universe did the trick.

“It’s great,” said Fran’s departing friend, grinning wildly. “I’m planning my return trip already!”

‘Perhaps it’s just that Aussies are generally more friendly than people in the UK,’ pondered Bruce later.

Then he came to his senses: Sydney can git facked.

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There’s something to be said for arriving at a new place in pitch black darkness: you never know what you’re going to wake up to.

It could be a glorious vista or, as was the case with Bruce many moons ago in Tasmania, something rather less glorious. After a long day’s driving, he and his travelling companion decided to pull off the road and sleep in the car. Several beers, a few hours and a cricked neck later, the sun rose over the horizon to reveal they were parked on a garbage tip.

More recently, he and Fran approached Daylesford, in the Macedon Ranges, under cloak of darkness.

“It feels more like redneck country here than the Yarra Valley or the Dandenongs,” said Bruce after they’d left the rain-soaked Western Highway.

“You were right about the rednecks,” said Fran a couple of hours later as they downed a pot in the public bar of the Daylesford Hotel: male count – 15; female – 2 (Fran and barmaid); beer guts – 15 (including the barmaid); hefty moustaches – 10 (sadly not including the barmaid); missing teeth – too many to count.

First impressions…

Local kids rebel

Local kids rebel

The following morning darkness lifted to reveal a quite different town.

The rednecks had been joined by hippies, day-trippers, masseurs, antique hawkers, new age loons and a surprisingly high number of sisters doing it to themselves.

Daylesford, despite the sorrowful leaden skies, was really rather quaint, even boasting a cafe offering Breakfast and Beer (and a bloody good range of beers too). It seemed a place to which many of its inhabitants had escaped; the healer who gave Fran her aura-realigning massage even tried to enlist her for the town’s loon army.

Cakes, second hand books, trees, upside down street signs, lakes, spas (lots of spas), folk music, artsy crafty things and a laidback, gentle vibe were everywhere – some young kids even took to the street to play a xylophone for passers-by.

The loon army

The loon army's influence begins to manifest...

Best of all were the antiques. If you’re into that thing (and, boy, has Fran shown a hitherto unknown predilection for all things tatty in recent weeks) it’s marvellous, especially the Mill Markets where you can easily escape the rain for a few hours deciding whether the battered old trunk or the Elvis room divider are more deserving of your cash.

Anyone heading there in the winter months might want to avoid the Cobb & Co cottage attached to the Town View, however. It’s nice enough and very central, but, Mr Owner, whatever you might wish to believe, the wall-mounted heater was not powerful enough to heat the room and there was not enough hot water to fill the spa bath without assistance from the kettle.

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Done it!

We can see ourselves!

After lying trapped under a rock for five days, climber Aron Ralston hacked his way through his arm with a pocket knife and walked back to civilisation.

Scottish king Robert the Bruce, his spirit broken by defeat to the marauding English forces, retreated to a cave where he hid for months in a state of abject despair. There he watched a spider successfully build a web – despite repeated failures – and found within himself the will to rise again and lead the Scots to a famous victory in the Battle of Bannockburn.

Faced with the shame of telling his parents he had been put on a report card for a consistently slack attitude, this Bruce (aged nine) discovered previously unearthed acting talents and persuaded his deputy head teacher that he had actually asked to go on report – a far lesser shame to take home.

Throughout history, seminal moments such as these have proven mankind’s ability to find hidden strengths at times of need.

Continuing that tradition, Fran’s parents have – at a combined age of 138 – become computer literate because of the need to keep in touch with their daughter. They won’t fly to Australia (it takes a quart of Captain Morgans Dark Rum and a industrial dosage of Valium to get them on a plane to Ireland from London) so Skype video calls have become the next best thing.

Six months ago they wouldn’t have dared touch a computer – even mobile phones were something to be feared – now they’re on the bloody thing all the time; Fran’s even set up a Facebook account for them (Bruce is less hopeful of success here).

"Start my video? FOUND IT!"

"What? Start my video? Ah...FOUND IT!"

Patience is key

It’s free (as long as you’ve got the internet and a webcam), takes you into your friends’ and families’ homes and, in the case of Mr and Mrs Fran Senior, leads to some entertaining, if frustrating, comedy routines.

*booooop* *booooop* *booooop*

“Hello darling. Can you hear us?” say the seniors.

“Hello. Yes, we can hear you. Turn on your video,” says Fran.

“How do we do that?”

“Click on Start My Video. Like you have done every other time.”

“Where is it, dear? Ooh! We can see you.” Giggling commences from the seniors at seeing their daughter on screen for the first time in, oh, at least 48 hours.

“It’s in the same place it was last time. Look for the blue bar in the middle of the screen. See it?”

“Yes dear.”

“Click on it. You know – move the mouse over it. Your cursor. You know – the arrow.”

“OK dear. Oh, something’s happening. Ah, there we are. Hooray!”

Cue joyous jig around the seniors’ computer desk, a la Sir Alex Ferguson celebrating a late Utd goal. With hindsight, perhaps they’ve started on the downers / rum cocktail already.

Either way, for us expats, it’s a wondrous piece of technology; just ensure you remind your parents, especially when they’re in their 70s, to get dressed before calling…

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What's so "special"?

What's so "special"?

In the guest book at Ironbark Cottage a smitten, hill-dwelling lass on a romantic retreat for her beau’s 21st wrote of a “special” view that “money just can’t buy”.

Now, it wasn’t the finest of days when Bruce and Fran arrived, yet was still clear enough to see from the top of Mount Dandenong across to the far side of Port Phillip Bay, but they weren’t overly impressed. Yep, there’s the sea, there’s the land and – what’s that whopping great white thing in the middle? Oh, Chadstone shopping centre. Gorgeous…

Still, the cottage itself – one of four tin and timber affairs set among well-maintained gardens and the Mount’s towering timbers – was great: all quaint and cosy inside like a trip back in time to The Waltons, with wooden ducks on the wall and a log fire. But, no matter how long Bruce and Fran gazed at the view, they couldn’t summon Miss Lover Lover’s depth of feeling.

Then they popped out to grab dinner and a couple of pints of Hargreaves Hill from the tasty selection of boozes at the log cabin style Kelly’s on the Hill in Olinda. Before they returned, the sun dipped over the horizon and night fell. And then they understood what she meant by the “view” as a shimmering blanket of lights unfolded before them…

Suddenly, they felt like Marge and Homer on an early date. What’s more, the cottage had a large spa by the window and they’d remembered to collect some cleanskin sparkling on the way.

It was enough to help Fran forget her Wolf Creek-inspired concerns about the cottage’s owners, concerns caused by nothing more than the chap’s combination of thick, greying Merv Hughes ‘tache and surrounding heavy stubble beard with a tattered lumberjack shirt. Bruce knew that was no sign of danger; the large collection of romcoms on DVD in the office and the welcoming CD featuring the “soothing sounds of love” were a greater indicator of serial killer potential.

But, like the land of Puffing Billy, with its leafy walks, lakes and cakes, the owners were nothing less than lovely – and the cottage only 45 minutes drive from the CBD.

Even better – money can buy the view – a couple of hundred bucks a night should do it, spa, log fire and tranquility included.

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