The excitement in Melbourne was palpable in Christmas Eve, there were queues to glimpse the Christmas window displays at Myers department store on Bourke Street Mall and the supermarkets were rammed with last minute shoppers picking up a few extra bottles or some last minute steaks and hams. The streets did start to clear earlier than usual though and the Chinatown area was empty as people toddled off to begin their celebrations. We enjoyed a sort-of Czech Christmas dinner (the Czechs celebrate Christmas on the 24th the funny people!) of fish and potatoes.
There is a great British assumption that all Australians celebrate Christmas on the beach with a barbeque piled with giant shrimps. Sadly the reality is not quite so idyllic! St. Kilda beach in Melbourne was rammed with people but mostly foreign tourists, fat, pink European guys booting balls around, Italian and Spanish guys trying to look oh-so-cool in their boardshorts and stupid hats and Irish girls swearing loudly in the gutter. There were snaking queues for the filthy barbies and then it started to rain. We snuck off to cook t-bone steaks and prawns on our camping stove away from the carnage and toasted with our Katnook sparkling Shiraz under a tree, slightly scared of being struck by lightening! Walking back past the beach the crowds had abandoned their food to the seagulls and a group of them were cramped under a bandstand, listening to awful eurotechno. And then, when we were back at our hotel, a hailstorm started with stones the size of eggs. A white Christmas!
Boxing Day is a chance for Aussies to enjoy a Christmas tradition at the MCG with the Boxing Day Test. The MCG is a giant stadium, the capacity about 3 or 4 times larger than that of any cricket ground in England, and is designed in a coliseum style, meaning that the noise seems to reverberate around the whole ground. There was a little bit of rain but that just made the day last a bit longer. A classic days cricket with beach balls bouncing around and beer snakes being confiscated, us watching with a beer in one hand and a pie in the other. The day was slightly marred by a minority of fans resorting to a bit of old fashioned racism. This is not the only time I have seen Australian guys disgrace themselves, they like a bit of male chauvinism as well, sometimes it feels like we are stuck in 1982 down here, with one of the more cringeworthy examples being the group of guys on a Mornington beach sounding air horns whenever women walked past. The writer Kathy Lette, not known for her astute social commentary got it spot on about 30 years ago in Puberty Blues when she wrote that Australian males (she was referring to the surf community at the time) were perfect evidence for anyone looking to disprove evolution as they were devolving back into primates!
Before we left Melbourne we did wander around the tacky souvenir stalls of Queen Victoria Market, not sure whether to buy a painted boomerang or didgeridoo or whether to plump for a furry koala toy or a kangaroo with boxing gloves.
In order to work off a bit of the Christmas indulgence we headed north from Melbourne into the Snowy mountains, snaking up the treacherous Alpine way to Charlotte pass, from where we could climb up to Australia’s highest point, Mt. Kosciusko. Despite being more than twice as high as England’s hghest point the 21km round trip trek was fairly easy (I think Charlotte pass is already higher than Scafell Pike) but there were some really beautiful views of the Australian Alps and Snowy river and there were still a few glaciers around, melting into the lakes below. After returning we camped in the national park, visited by inquisitive kangaroos munching the grass around our tent.
Canberra is much maligned for being purpose-built but in such a young country this hardly seems unusual. It does give itself away with some typical facets of such cities being so spread out with plenty of green spaces, swimming pools and sports centres but no shops or urban areas. Whilst the government buildings are not particularly impressive, the National Museum of Australia is a highlight, especially the Garden of Australian dreams which looks like some sort of real-life CGI world!
The Blue mountains sit just 100km inland from Sydney although we took the back way in via a horrid road up from Canberra. Despite the poor weather we enjoyed a tough 15km trek through the Grose valley, descending from Govetts Leap lookout through the valley to the Blue gum forest and a demanding ascent up to Perrys Lookdown and returning along the ridge via Pulpit Rock viewpoint. It may seem strange to go trekking in mountains and descend first and then climb but that is because the Blue mountains are not really mountains, they are more like a network of valleys, canyons and gorges, only visible once right on top of them. They do appear blue as well, I don’t know why, perhaps the haze or the blue gum trees? After the trek we also visited the Echo Point lookout to view the famous Three Sisters rock formation, catching it just right as the sun set.
I didn’t expect to be visiting a hospital on New Years Eve but that is what I ended up doing after suffering from pain since Christmas Eve around the hernia I had operated on 18 months ago. The doctor confirmed I have suffered a re-occurence and will need an op when I get back to the UK. He did say it was not serious and should not affect my plans between now and then, just that I cannot do any exercise or any heavy lifting, so Monika has to carry everything from now on! He also said I should buy a lottery ticket as the chances of regression with the new mesh repairs are very low so I was the lucky one! Some luck! I consoled myself by visiting Royal National Park and the historic Botany Bay, sight of the first European landing in Australia. We spent the afternoon on a beach with a perfect view of the flight path into Sydney Airport.
Sydney is of course one of the most famous places to be for New Years Eve. The place was totally packed, I have never seen such crowds. There was no chance to get to one of the prime views over the harbour for the fireworks so we settled for a takeaway curry, a couple of bottles wrapped in paper bags and a view of the bridge from Circular Quay. The fireworks were impressive but when we saw the front page photos the next day we rued what we had missed! We queued up with the thronging masses to catch the train out of the centre, eventually getting on a train around 2:30. Having mentioned the guys earlier, it is surprising that not all girls in Australia are like those living in Earls Court, i.e. the kind you don’t want to mess with! There are plenty of vacuous blondes tottering around in high heels and skimpy hot pants and we sat next to a group of these on the train, all giggly inanely at the pretty colours on their mobile phones!
Returning to the centre on New Years Day around 3pm there were still some parties going on and a lot of people staggering around trying to find their way home. It was a beautiful day for walking around however and much of the clean-up had already taken place, very efficient. This was the chance to wander through the botanical gardens, spotting flying foxes in the trees and viewing the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge from the view at Mrs Macquaries chair. We walked around the outside of the Opera House and back through Circular Quay, the cafes and bistros doing a roaring trade with people just re-discovering their appetites. I was underwhelmed by the shops and bars of the Rocks but did enjoy walking around the old colonial homes of Millers Point and the Observatory. Crossing the Harbour Bridge is an exhilarating experience, not just the views or the height but also the rumbling of the cars, buses and trains crossing all at once. I don’t think I could handle the climb up to the top of the bridge. Nobody ever mentions the north shore of the harbour but I always imagined the view must be great from there as well, and so it was, the views from Luna Park being just as good as those from the botanical gardens. There is a great swimming pool just under the bridge as well which must be one of the most scenic places to do your weekly lengths!
Other sights of central Sydney we visited included the extremely tacky development around Darling Harbour (something akin to the V+A Waterfront complex in Cape Town), a Chinatown that feels more modern than elsewhere and the quiet Hyde Park. One of my highlights was wandering through the Kings Cross district, from the giant Coca-cola sign down past the backpacker hostels and cafes of Darlinghurst Street, intermingled with seedy bars and strip joints, a throw back to its earlier guise as the magnet for sailors and soldiers arriving in Sydney for R and R. Of course Sydney is famous for city beaches so we took the iconic Manly Ferry across the harbour, past the Heads to Manly beach. The ferry journey was great, the destination less so. The beach was rammed, it looked like a Bulgarian beach resort, unsurprising given it was a bank holiday!
Fleet Foxes are playing a three night residence at the Sydney Opera House and I queued up on the 2nd January for over an hour in the hope of picking up a standby ticket. Amazingly I was in luck, jumping the queue due to their only being a single ticket left. Monika didn’t fancy it and the others in the queue were all couples! I could not believe my luck. I had missed out on three single tickets that had come up whilst we were waiting and I eventually got mine five minutes after the band started but I didn’t care. I saw one of my favourite bands play an incredible gig at one of the worlds iconic venues. Inside the concert hall the roof is the same shape as outside, for some reason I didn’t imagine that, so it was like hearing a concert inside a giant shell, and the sound was great. It was all just great.
On our final day in Sydney we visited the SCG for the Sydney New Years Test. Personally I think the SCG is a much nicer stadium than the MCG, probably one of the prettiest in world cricket and we sat there for a glorious day of cricket in the sun. The crowd were in high spirits but much more refined than in Melbourne (kind of like the difference between Lords and Oval crowds!) and we saw a ton of wickets fall on the first day. At stumps the sun was still shining so we took the bus down to famous Bondi beach. I didn’t want to end this on a low point but I didn’t see what all the fuss is about. I found Bondi to be crowded and the area resembles a British holiday resort. Everyone seemed to be strutting around trying to see and be seen. The sea was nice though, big waves and the perfect refreshment after a day baking in the sun!
From here we head north towards Brisbane. Luckily we have a new USB stick to provide the in car entertainment (that is between listening to the cricket) as our old one broke somewhere in South Autralia, putting paid to our White Album and Diamond Dogs sessions as we barrelled up and down the Stuart highway! Something tells me we could be listening to a bit of Fleet Foxes in the next few days.