Melbourne - An unusual Christmas

Trip Start Nov 12, 2007
Trip End Aug 01, 2008

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Friday, December 28, 2007

We duly arrived in Melbourne on the 23rd Dec and settled in ready for Christmas. We set out to explore the city. There is no real centre although there is a fairly new square full of strange modern buildings (Federation Square) which they are trying to turn into a central meeting place. It is next to the Yarra River which is a disappointing muddy brown and the historic railway station where train times are shown on old fashioned clock faces.

The City is spacious with wide roads and parks and this means that trams are able to run. They are the main means of public transport to get round town. This creates one bizarre driving rule. If you want to turn right you have to get into the left lane let cars going straight on by and then dive across when it is clear - yikes!

Christmas Eve was a bizarre experience but Emma  deals with this below............

In an attempt to make Christmas day as different as possible we set off on the tram to St Kilda where Melbourne meets the sea and went for a long walk along the beach. It was a bright sunny day although there was a strong cool breeze keeping the temperature down. The beach is not one of Australia's best but by lunchtime it was getting busy and we saw at least one party who had brought a Christmas tree with them listening to carols and there was plenty of beach cricket going on.

In the afternoon we went up the Observation Tower one of Melbourne's tallest buildings for some spectacular views of the city. Sharing the viewpoint with mainly oriental tourists, it was easy to forget what day it was. Melbourne has more than its fair share of parks and sports grounds where we spent a pleasant couple of hours  including the famous Melbourne Cricket Ground when I got the obligatory photo of course (4/6 now).

We briefly viewed the Boxing Day sales from a safe distance but they looked similar to the UK scrum (not that we've ever been). Melbourne is renowned for its restaurants and the South Bank of the river offered a good choice of food. In the evening we enjoyed a Greek meal with a view over the water towards the Melbourne skyline which has the usual high rises mixed in with strange coloured modern structures and the historic buildings.

We managed to fit in one more trip to take a short steam train ride in the Dandenong Range a set of scenic hills/mountains to the East of Melbourne. Although this should have been relaxing, due to an administrative error only 6 seats had been booked on the train and there were 35 of us. It was a bit like commuting from Reading to London in the rush hour but with much better scenery!

There is apparently a huge rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney about everything and Melbourne consistently comes out top in polls for the best place to live and indeed its population is likely to overtake Sydney's in the next few years. However, as far as we were concerned for a city break Sydney has lot more to offer.

However it was certainly a Christmas we won't forget and as for Christmas Eve.............  R

'Twas the night before Christmas. Whilst most people (mainly men) were in the shops panic buying, we were boarding a coach for a different Christmas Eve than we are used to. It was a ploy to deep our minds off missing home.We were donning woolly hats and fleeces so we weren't quite able to lose all the UK traditions. It could be cold and rainy where we were going (no, not a surprise Christmas visit to Gloucester) but a 2 hour coach ride to Philip Island to see the twilight penguin parade.

On the coach ride down the butch Aussie coach driver kept referring to the "little" Penguins - little penguins this, little penguins that. I eventually twigged that he was not being soft and mushy about them, they are in fact bleeding small, so in true Aussie style (call it as you see it) they are the Little Penguins. In our estimation about a foot tall..

The (lickle) penguins live in burrows on the island and everyday at day break, they head off across the beach, under the cover of darkness,  to spend the day hunting in the sea. At sunset, they head back to the beach, again wait for the darkness to avoid predators, and then cross the beach back to their mates / young in the burrows. They only have short legs and with bellies full of fish it is a real uphill trek back to their nesting holes. The Island is their only permanent place of residence, so the evening ritual is, 365 days a year is a real winner with the tourists.

When we arrived, we weren't the only tourists trying to ignore the C word. The visitor centre was like Tokyo Centre, full of Japanese tourists. The coach companies had been canny in not revealing to us tourists that photography of the penguins was not permitted. I swear I saw a few Japanese being stretched off with possible seizures when this news was broken to them. However, some went into the heaving souvenir shop and took photos in there instead (honest). I think if people had known about the ban a large proportion would not have bothered travelling to the Island.

The centre had a small educational exhibition which was also swamped with people. There were a few nesting boxes with glass sides so people could look in and see the eggs that had been laid or see some of the nesting female penguins. The signs said to observe the penguins quietly so there was one woman (Australian) banging on the glass to get the penguins's attention and another (Japanese) taking photos through the glass with a flash on.

The coach driver, the info signs and the welcome film all indicated that we were visitors on the penguins' island and therefore we had to observe the rules while viewing this natural wonder. However, there must have been over a thousand people there and the Centre was selling buckets of popcorn to consume on the viewing gallery. The gallery was set up with large spotlights and there was a "penguin plus" option, whereby for a few more dollars you got to sit in a smaller separate grandstand and listen to the expert commentary. Somehow the tourist whirl was taking over the whole experience of watching a unique natural occurrence.

We headed out to the viewing gallery as it was close to sunset. Although the penguins would not come out until it was dark (9pm) masses of tourists had already filled the seats and some had been sat in the cool evening, on cold concrete for well over an hour just to get the front seats. Our coach driver had tipped us off to wait at the back as the masses would clear early on and we would be able to get closer eventually.

The sun went down, the waves crashed in, people noisily munched on popcorn. The Rangers scanned the crowds for litter throwers and rogue photographers and then the spotlights came on to light up the shoreline. I half expected the "Mission Impossible" theme tune to start blasting out of loud speakers as the penguins began to form groups of about 20 on the edge of the waves, psyching themselves up to make the hazardous journey across the beach. You could see them mentally preparing themselves for the beach crossing, frequently forming a group then all diving back under the waves and then emerging, trying to decide whether there were any predators about.

Finally, the first group braved it and waddled as fast as they could together across the sand towards and pass the viewing gallery, heading for the grassy dunes and the safety of their burrows. They travelled in formation and it was entertaining for us to watch them hestitate and then dash for it then turn round and flee back to the water and then try again 5 minutes later. However, for them it was a life or death journey, one they had to do twice a day - now that is what I call a stressful commute!

Entertainment aside, it was moving to watch them struggle to decide whether it was safe or not. Frequently, as the various groups began their beach crossing, one of the penguins at the back would lose its nerve and race back to the safety of the waves. Once one broke ranks at the back the panic spread to the penguins in front and one by one they would all turn back thinking one had heard danger, unless one in the middle stood firm and the front of the group would then plough on. In one group we saw, a rear penguin panicked only 10 yards from the burrow area and tore back 40 yards to the dark sea.

While  the groups were crossing the sea, Rob idly wondered whether a large bird of prey swooping down would add to the entertainment, with the smell of popcorn in his nostrils he must have momentarily thought he was in the cinema. Few of you realise what an evil streak he has, but I know the truth. I would like to reassure everybody that no penguins were harmed in the making of this blog.

Our coach driver was right. No sooner had the first group of penguins got their (little) feet on to the sand, masses of people started to rush from the gallery back to the coaches and/ or the souvenir shop/ cafe.Probably because they were frozen or because of the lack of photo opportunities. Within about 10 minutes we had easily been able to move forward to the front rows of seat and get a closer view of the emerging penguins. They were very cute - blue black and waddling like mad up the beach. We followed some of the groups up to the burrows along a viewing boardwalk so we could watch and listen to them trying to find their home. With the masses leaving you did finally start to feel that you were a visitor on their Island.

I was disappointed that there had not been a loud drumroll at the end of the evening with a penguin suddenly appearing and waddling up the beach in a Santa hat but, hey, maybe the centre were saving that for the Christmas day tourists.
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