Melbourne - so very B list

Trip Start Mar 30, 2003
Trip End Jan 30, 2004

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Wednesday, November 5, 2003

Executive Summary:

Melbourne - don't bother, unless you are into strange forms of football and touring an empty cricket stadium
Canberra - surprisingly good, ideal if you are a terrorist wanting to blow up a Parliament building
Blue Mountains - best walking ever and stunning views

The rest:

I was not hugely impressed with Melbourne, I have to say. Perhaps my disappointment came about because those people I have met from the city in the past have made it out to be superior to Sydney - 'it has more of a European culture than Sydney, with wine bars rather than pubs, better shopping and transport' etc etc. I now know this to be a lot of ****.

Yes, it has a very good tram system. Yes, the Victorian architecture looks very nice. Yes, everyone I met was very friendly, but the city does not just have the setting to put it on a par with Sydney. Perhaps it did not help that it rained a lot while I was there and the weather forecasts consistenly seemed to show that it was 5 degrees warmer in Sydney. I perused guide books and travel brochures to try to find something to do, but could not get turned on by the two big tourist experiences - tours of the Melbourne Cricket Ground (wow, an empty stadium!) and the studio where Neighbours is filmed. Does anyone watch that any more? Come to think about it doesn't the sun always shine in Neighbours? Instead, I took refuge from the rain in a couple of new museums which, if in Britain, would have the whiff of lottery cash about them. In hindsight they were not that interesting.

The newly built Federation Square, designed to be a focal centre of the city, was impressive. The annual arts festival had recently finished, during which people had been dancing in the square every morning apparently. I hope they wore thermal underwear as I was cold with 3 layers on.

It seems to me that the city's claim to greatness depends on hosting a series of top events, whether it be the arts festival or sporting events. Today, for example, everyone in Australia stops to watch the Melbourne Cup racing. Melbournites are not that interested in the Rugby World Cup, though, instead being crazy about Australian Rules Football and seemingly unworried that this is not a game played anywhere else in the world. Actually, after I left Australia played Ireland at 'International Rules' football, which consisted of Ireland playing Gaelic football, Australia playing using their rules and everyone hoping that the rules were similar for both sides.

So, after 2 nights I took my trusty chariot on the road to the capital, Canberra, about 6 hours drive north. Canberra gets a bad rap, seen as a small town full of pen-pushing bureaucrats. It was founded in the 1920s specifically to be the national capital, but its centrepiece, a huge artificial lake, was not created until the 1960s, the time that many civil servants transferred from Melbourne. So, it has a young sort of feel - very car friendly with lots of free parking. Its residents are young too as the students of the Australian National University form a large proportion of the population, resulting in a large number of cafes and nightclubs. Craig David had come to play while I was there, but unfortunately there were no tickets left.

I took a guided tour of the Parliament building, a no-expense-spared marble and glass construction completed 15 years ago. It is designed with a sloping roof which is grassed over, so from a distance it appears to merge into a hillside. From a security point of view I was surprised that I was allowed to park my car underneath the building for as long as I wanted (and for free!). The Senate was in session, but it was very dull so I left after a couple of minutes. Architecturally, it is interesting to compare the inside to the rather cramped Old Parliament building down the street which was designed to be temporary when opened in the 1920s. In the latter building the Prime Minister's suite and cabinet room have been left furnished in a 1970s style.

One must-see is the newly opened National Museum of Australia on the edge of the lake. It celebrates what it is to be Australian, so there were exhibits about the aboriginals, the Anzacs, kangaroos and....vegemite. It was great fun and I learned a lot too. Definitely one of the best 'museums' I have been in.

From Canberra I headed on back roads through New South Wales sheep country to the Blue Mountains, which are only a couple of hours drive west of Sydney. These will never win any prizes for being the highest mountains in the world, but probably would for stunning views. First stop was the limestone caves at Jenolan, Australia's first tourist attraction in the nineteenth century. Minerals in running water have created amazing shapes draping the walls, roof and floor of the chambers in the 15 caves. I went on a tour of just one, Lucas cave, which itself took 2 hours. Inside was the Cathedral Chamber, so named because of the stone formations looking like a pulpit and an altar. Church services and concerts are sometimes held inside.

After some bushwalking in the Jenolan area I headed to Katoomba, the 'capital' of the Blue Mountains. Going to the edge of the cliff (200 metres high) next day and looking out over the Jamison Valley was definitely a 'wow' moment - tree covered valleys and hills as far as the eye could see. And yes, there really is a blue haze in the air, due to the effect of the sunlight on the oil given off by the eucalyptus trees, apparently. I walked round the cliff edge from Katoomba falls to Echo point for the view of the Three Sisters (see attached pics). I also took the 'Scenic Railway' down to the valley floor. This has a 52 degree incline, making it the steepest railway in the world. After, a walk round the valley bottom I returned by the 'Scenisensor' cable car.

I spent yesterday doing two long walks. One I happened to read about the previous night in the travel section of a Sydney newspaper and was through the Grand Canyon near the village of Blackheath and up up to Evan's Lookout. The sandstone cliffs towered overhead as I walked through palms and ferns alongside a fast stream at the bottom of the canyon. At times the track went behind waterfalls and sometimes it disappeared, requiring clambering over slippery moss-covered boulders in the stream. The second walk was along the edge of the cliff from Govett's Leap to Pulpit Rock, offering views over the Grose Valley similar to those over the Jamison Valley the previous day. Overall, this was some of the best walking I have ever done.

So, I arrived in Sydney last night with somewhat sore legs. After hardly seeing a soul on my walks, it was certainly quite a contrast to be in the city centre. Today I have handed back my trusty chariot to an employee of Mr Hertz with 3,000km on the clock since I left Adelaide. I guess it's back to the bus now....
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