Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Hobo of the South Pacific

‘Hobo’ might be pushing it a bit far, but not as far as ‘boho’! The next 4 weeks, other than a couple of contacts that I will be making in Brisbane and Auckland, are on the road, with a somewhat improvised itinerary. There are two dates to concentrate the mind: my departure for Hong Kong (27 Nov), and my arrival in New Zealand (6 Nov). In between, I plan on 2 weeks in the South Island, and one week in the North (as counselled by my Kiwi adviser).

This week begins with my last two days in Melbourne last weekend, then goes on to my arrival in Brisbane and tours of the city, a couple of coastal excursions (as advised by my Aussie adviser, Dr. No) to Byron Bay (south of Brisbane) and Noosa (north of Brisbane).
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My last two days in Melbourne weren’t spent there! My hosts have relations north-west of Melbourne in a place called Ballarat, which sounded to me as if it was the name of an old card game (Fan-Tan, that sort of thing) and, being generous and kind hosts, they kindly invited me to accompany them on their family weekend to visit their relations up there and, while doing that, see a bit of the country and visit some middle Victoria wineries. It sounded an excellent idea.

The area was known to the Watha Warrung aboriginals as ‘Ballaarat’ or “resting place”. The original European settlers first came in 1837 but when gold was discovered in 1851 at nearby Buninyong, their peace was disturbed when thousands poured into the area to prospect for the precious metal. There’s still a lot of gold around, and some Ballarat residents still have some gold nuggets secreted away to prove it. You can still buy metal detectors and other prospecting paraphernalia, but the mines themselves died out after World War I. The result of the gold rush was that Ballarat, as opposed to the gold rush towns in the Klondike (probably because of the climate), is now a town of over 70,000, with a lot of surviving buildings from its heyday. Gold was also key to the development of the nearby Melbourne. The first 12 years of the gold rush resulted in population growth of nearly 8 times in Victoria, and drove Melbourne to become the largest city and financial centre in Australia, for over half a century.

But that’s not all that there is to Ballarat – no slouch on civic development, it has an Art Gallery, an artificial lake, and Botanical Gardens, and various other attractions. It even had a rebellion, the Eureka Rebellion, when miners wanted to protest against unfair licensing conditions. It seemed an interesting place to spend a weekend.

We set out early on Saturday and enjoyed a pretty easy drive up country. Once we had arrived in Ballarat, we dropped our bags and, accompanied by our local guide, one of my hosts relations, we set off for a place called the Tuki Trout Fishing Complex, which is near Smeaton north of Ballarat. Tuki is named after the Tukidale stud sheep, bred for their specialty carpet wool, that abound in the area. They grow about an inch of wool every month and are shorn twice a year!

The trip up there showed how different the scenery could be, changing it seemed every few miles, from lunar landscapes to rolling green hills. Click here to look at this week's photos, to see how the landscape can change within a very short distance. Tuki is a big place, with accommodation, gardens, barns, outbuildings, and these enormous pools which constitute the trout farm, all against the background of stunning scenery.

So it was on this trip that, after making a ridiculous spectacle of myself playing football, I did something else that I hadn’t done for 35 years – fish. Well, if you could call what I did fishing. The idea is that you fish for your lunch in their stocked pools, where even the worst angler in the world would catch something. So we baited hooks with sweetcorn and cautiously dipped our lures in the water of one of the pools. About 15 minutes and several tangled lines later, I had nothing. However, neither had anyone else, other than a bite. After another 10 minutes, during which I set up the rod like Huck Finn, lodged between two rocks, and sat down, we still had caught nothing and asked for some assistance!!!

With some advice on how to fish, we then managed to bag sufficient fish to make the whole expedition a respectable success, as you can see in the picture. Not before my Huck Finn-like maneuver with the rod had rendered it completely tangled and unusable, though. The Tuki staff just smiled and gently told me how to do it correctly, for next time – darn citified dozos who don’t even know how to use a fishing rod!!!

We then adjourned to the dining room, where our fish were cooked and served up with trout pate, salad, potatoes, and local wine – this one called Dulcinea, a drinkable, fresh wine. So beginning a theme of the weekend…
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Next, we drove across some lovely country through some beautiful villages or towns. The two that we stopped in were Daylesford and Hepburn Springs, spending a bit of time in each, although there are other very pretty, but more modest contenders for lovers of scenery. They are known as the “spa centre of Victoria” for their status as spa towns, dating from the 1870s. Daylesford has Lake Daylesford, which seemed a convivial place to stop at the Boat House Café and sit and look at the lake. We then went into the middle of town and walked around the shoppes before going on to Hepburn Springs, which has nature trails through the forests that surround the springs, and a large centre at the springs themselves with treatments on offer, heated spas, plunge pools, flotation tanks, beauty treatments, massages, and saunas. There are mineral springs on the trails if you want to try the water – be warned that it’s full of iron, and an acquired taste!!!

We returned to Ballarat later that afternoon having seen and done a lot for one day – and went out in the evening to the Europa Café, to bolster ourselves against Sunday, a wine-tasting day…
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To prepare for the rigours of continuous wine consumption, tasting, and purchase, we took the air around Lake Wendouree, the artificial lake in the middle of Ballarat, a 7km. early morning walk. Or, at least it is if you do it in the early morning. I took some pictures of Black Swans in the lake there, if you have a look at the gallery.

Then, again with our local tour guide and vinophile leading the way, we managed to hit 4 wineries on Sunday. We tried not to rush our tastings, tried to get to know as much about the winemakers, their philosophies, and the peculiarities of their climate, situation, etc. We still only managed 4, though, out of 36 wineries on the Great Grape Road, a tourist route through the wine regions of Ballarat, the Pyrenees and Grampians. That’s out of 350 wineries and countless more vineyards just in the state of Victoria, which has 22 different wine regions in it. I read a statistic that a winery is started in Australia once ever 60 hours or so. It’s probably the most dynamic industry in the country. Of course, despite the popularity of Australian wine in the UK, we only see a fraction of the labels, quantity and quality of the wines – even in Australia itself, it is difficult to get to know about them all. Except by going on a winery-by-winery inspection, good for detailed knowledge but probably bad for overall liver health!

We started out at Eastern Peake on Clunes Road in Coghill’s Creek and had some of their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and then moved on to something I hadn’t seen before, the Pinot Rose, which is going to be marketed as a light drink to urban, sophisticated females tired of Ready-To-Drinks. We met the winemaker and his wife and had a long chat with them about their firm objectives of producing more quality, upmarket wines. After buying some of the wine (the new Chardonnay was the best white), we consulted our timetable and found that going to another 6 wineries, as we had planned, was not going to be feasible, even if it was liver-friendly.

Cue a sudden change of plan – we then visited quickly two wineries named Pyrenees Ridge (very nice Special Merlot) and Blue Pyrenees. The interesting thing was how different they were in scale. Eastern Peake and Pyrenees Ridge were one- and two-person businesses, with no pretensions to visitor centres, accommodation, restaurants. Blue Pyrenees was a large winery with lots of different wines (including a sparkling Merlot, very unusual, which was excellent!), a big shop, and a sprawling business.

By this time of the afternoon, the time that most wineries close was approaching, and we had yet to have any lunch. So we rushed to Warrenmang and had a selection of cheese and bread with our final winery bottle of the day, another marvellous wine. I think that I could easily get used to this life…

If you have a look at the pictures of Warrenmang, you’ll see an extra long one in there, a panorama of that gorgeous landscape. I’ve been taking pictures on this trip with the Digital Camera that I bought before coming, a Canon Digital Ixus 500 that I highly recommend. However, as with all modern fandangled oodjimiflip bloody over-specced techno-stuff, I’m only just coming to grips with it. I recently found out it can take small films – don’t worry, I’m not about to subject you to my film director side – as if taking still photographs were just, well, crazy golf for the darn thing.

It also has a Photo-Stitch facility as well, which I have tried before. The only problem that I didn’t surmount, however, was my own incompetence – of course, you have to have some overlapping feature for the photos to stitch together, right? I missed that part…so my first photo-stitch, of the Red Fort, failed – it’s as if I took a photograph of my head, and then my leg: the Photo-Stitcher joins them together in the best way possible, so I look like some alien mutant. In the case of the Red Fort, it looked like a quaint little red cottage instead of the sprawling, impressive monument that it is…

However, the wine didn’t make me waver around any more than usual, so you have a view of Warrenmang that gives you an idea of what a special, beautiful place it is – it’s called a ‘vineyard resort’ in the brochure – preserving the best of the small winery while still being able to offer spa facilities, accommodation, and food.

On our return, we took the two pictures in Moonambel which our guide insisted that I take, as they were typical of Australian country scenes. So I include them both. The second has a tiny sign on it on which can be just about made out the words, “as this building is ‘still lived in’ please respect our bloody privacy – thank you.” Sorry…!!!

We then went back and my host’s relations had prepared an enormous barbecue out of the fish left over from the previous day, and some of the wine that we had brought helped us consume the feast, and we went to bed ready for an early rise the next morning – as I had to get to Melbourne airport to check in for my 11:00 flight to Brisbane, or ‘Bris-Vegas’ as it is apparently called (by whom? The Lonely Planet guide and, so I’m told, one other person.).
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‘Bris-Vegas’ is apparently nicknamed because of the opportunities to gamble, not because of a propensity to build replicas of great monuments. It offers the casinos usual to any sizeable Australian city, as well as the ubiquitous ‘pokies’ (I have been here too short a time to comment on Australian English, but one thing that puzzled me was the frequent signs for “Tatt’s Pokies” and “Joker’s Wild Pokies”, until it was gently explained to me that the first stands for “Tattersall’s Poker Machines”!).

Gambling was the theme of my first full day in Brisbane, Melbourne Cup Day. I queued up for a City Sights Tour in the morning and watched a steady stream of office workers walking around with clinking bags and oodles of prepared food. Melbourne Cup is big all over Australia. Cup Day really started in earnest about 12:00 as people adjourned from work (in Melbourne everyone has Cup Day off and some even have Monday) to place their bets (A$126m was placed) and then begin their liquid lunches. Nearly all the women were decked out in the most amazing, sumptuous and expensive costumes and hats, and many men (but not as many as the women) were in their best dinner jackets.

Throughout the day, the condition of most of those so dressed declined noticeably so that by 18:00, when I was having a salad al fresco in the pedestrian mall in Queen Street, people were swirling and careering around the city centre in an alarming fashion, noticeably crapulous and continuing to booze well into the evening, to get their heads nice and sore for the next morning’s haze.

Brisbane Tour 1 was a short bus tour around the highlights of the city centre or, as it’s always referred to in Australia, the Central Business District (CBD for short). The commentary was continuous and lovingly concentrated on the major historical events and places in the city. It was the only capital city in Australia that started out as a fully-fledged convict colony – all the others had convicts as well as settlers. It’s not on the ocean, but has a spectacular setting on the Brisbane River, a cityscape of CBD skyscrapers on one side, the south bank arts complex, formerly an Expo, on the other. It’s a sprawling city with few older buildings – they’re either restored or destroyed – and no natural centre. Despite this, it’s an agreeable setting and city, with the usual attractive outdoor lifestyle. We stopped at Kangaroo Point to get a bird’s eye view of the cityscape, and our guide pointed out the electric barbecues that Brisbane City Council had provided in the park there – so that people could barbecue and watch the sun go down over the inland hills, then watch the skyscrapers light up the dusky sky.

I then went on a walking tour of the centre and got some more views of the historic buildings and riverside settings, strolling through one of the two botanical gardens in the city. Each Australian city seems to have substantial botanical gardens, to show off their tropical and subtropical climate at its best. Spring sees splendid colours appear here, and the purple jacaranda and bright red bougainvillea trees abounded. The day was rounded off by my third tour of the centre, this time using the City Cat, a two hour river journey upriver to Bretts Wharf and down to the University of Queensland, passing by the central cityscape on the way.

The weather is warmer and sunnier here on the east coast – the Gold Coast south of the city gets about 240 days of sunshine a year, the Sunshine Coast north about 280, with wet seasons in mid-summer with lots of rain – so I decided it was safe to book a couple of tours, and Dr. No had advised me to head for Byron Bay on the former, Noosa on the latter. Byron Bay was named by Captain Cook for Lord Byron, and there’s a lighthouse at Cape Byron just above the easternmost point of land on the continent. The journey down to Byron Bay was fascinating, as we passed the dormant volcano at Mount Warning, called by the natives the ‘sleeping giant’ because of the startling silhouette of a Gulliver-like head. Mt. Warning is the centre of a 28m year old volcano, and at one time spewed volcanic ash several hundred kilometres over the area, making its soils rich and fertile. Our coach hugged the coast, all sandy beaches, and in the hinterland was the dark blue outline of undulating hills and mountains. Sadly, most of the Gold Coast is now marred by high-rise hotels and apartments. One of these is allegedly the tallest residential complex in the world in the town of Surfer’s Paradise, at over 85 storeys. There’s also a wealth of tourist attractions, or tacky tourist tat, depending on your viewpoint.

Byron Bay itself was beautiful and attractive because the planners had moved in before the developers and ensured that no high rises could take place. Byron Bay had thus developed in a different direction, and was even more relaxed and laid-back than usual in Australia. ‘Alternative lifestyles’, funky therapies and belief systems (the PrayerHouse invites all comers “meet with your maker”!!!) are rampant in the town, and the hippies and the surfers seem to be in charge. We came back by the Tweed River, where we had a nature cruise during which we fed the funny-looking pelicans, with their great plastic looking eyes and chalky appearance (see photos), and had a lecture on mud crabs.

Noosa was quite different. The Sunshine Coast has much less development than the Gold Coast (despite the greater number of days of sunshine). Noosa is one of the few Aussie beaches that faces north. It’s an expensive area (a studio apartment in one of the most desirable locations, Noosa Heads, went for A$1.3m 3 weeks ago), with a beautiful beach. It was an ideal place to lunch on fish and chips at an upmarket beach restaurant a step or two from the sands. As I had just eaten, I didn’t want to have a swim yet, but finally got a chance when we returned by Mooloolaba, which has a gorgeous harbour at the mouth of the Mooloolah River, and a beach on the ocean. I asked at the tourist office if there were public lockers on the beach, and was told that the town council was doing its bit in the fight against terrorism by not providing such a service. Terrorism in Mooloolaba!!! It seemed hard to believe. So I left my possessions with the lifeguard and went gambolling into the surf, and was immediately knocked back by a breaker…

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