Hearty Welcomes & Salutations! Originally an action-packed travel blog from a globe-trotting Scotsman, An Ache for the Distance has, over the years, slowed down (I post less often), mellowed out (my dogs and kid have found their way on here) and become more of an expat blog (I German things up). Take a look around, leave a comment and share the love if you like something.
Stuart Mathieson, Lübeck, Germany

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Life In The Southern Shires

The MCG empties and thousands of cricket fans pour onto the streets of central Melbourne. At exactly the same time, Andy and I hit the streets of the CBD and the van takes on the role of a driving billboard. It’s an advertiser’s wet dream. We take the wrong lane and are forced to do two lengthy trips down Flinders Street where we subsequently subject thousands of people to the bright colours and company logos on the ambassador van. Not content with dazzling only the cricket fans, we roll past Flinders Street Station in the heart of the city and subject all and sundry to the visual advertising feast. We’re soon travelling down St Kilda Road and, as the road splits into three different sections, I suddenly remember why I hate driving in Melbourne. The two outside parts are for ordinary driving but the central sector looks like a battleground between car & tram, a scary prospect that has only one possible outcome and as such I stick to the outside lanes.

We make it to my friend’s house in Albert Park, unhindered by tram aggression, and soon make a beeline for the Espy in St Kilda. For those not in the know, the Esplanade Hotel, better known as the Espy, is a Melbourne drinking institution. With a funky interior, an assortment of ripped leather furnishings, a kitchen for those with the munchies and enough cool people to open a nightclub next door strictly for the hip and trendy, it’s a pub that’s shouting out to be drunk in. We spend the next couple of hours pretending to be cool in a corner of the Espy kitchen before retiring in true pensioner fashion around 10.30pm.

The following morning, Andy, myself and Nicole (the friend in Albert Park), hit the highway in the direction of Gippsland and more specifically, Leongatha. Despite being on the road to Wilsons Promontory, not many tourists stop in the Gatha and it clings onto its traditional country town feel. My only reason for venturing into this part of rural Victoria is that I know a very hospitable chap named Ernie who lives on a property a few k’s from town. We met in a pub in Bairnsdale a couple of years ago and after a few beers he asked if my girlfriend and I would like to look after his farm whilst he went to Sydney for the weekend. A lasting friendship was subsequently born and I’m now a huge fan of the Gatha and this corner of Australia.

An hour or so after leaving the busy streets of Melbourne, we get to Ernie’s place. I start to have one of those surreal moments where it feels like the two year period since I was last here was just a dream. Ernie is exactly how I remember him, the property is pretty much the same and the only hint of change is that Skipper the Labrador is slightly more spherical. And like many of my friendships with Australians, we pick up where we left off by going for a few beers.

After a thorough session of refreshment at a local hotel, we head back to Ernie’s and the BBQ is fired up. As food is piled onto the barbie, I start to feel sorry for Nicole. She’s a vegetarian but the hot plate is starting to look like a buffet for a carnivore’s convention. Whilst she’s waiting for a space to open up on the barbie for her veggie sausages, we head around to the back of the house in time for the sunset. I perch myself on top of a fence post and go trigger happy with the camera. It’s a stunning sight as the sky turns bright orange and the rolling hills in the foreground become silhouetted. It’s the kind of scenery that makes some people go all philosophical. Just as I’m about to put forward my theories on life, love and the reasoning behind why opal fruits were changed to starburst, an engine roars in the background and Andy comes flying up to the fence on a quad bike. I contemplate my options, admire the scene or jump onto the growling four wheeled monster. It’s an easy choice.

Seconds later I’m flying across fields on the back of the bike with Andy seemingly going over every large bump he can find in order to send my backside skywards. It works to the point where my bum loses contact with the bike and I’m clinging on by my finger tips. Andy stops the bike and I manage to convince him to let me go solo. I’m soon ripping open the throttle to the point where it sounds like the bike is about to explode. This isn’t to say that I’m going very fast, far from it. I’m just having great difficulties getting the thing out of first gear. My masculine credentials take a swift nosedive as I stall in a distant corner of a far-away field. Andy starts to make his way over to help out but is no doubt simultaneously preparing a barrage of verbal abuse toward my girly driving skills. I manage to stop him in his tracks by getting the bike started again and I’m soon screaming over the freshly cut field in second gear, my man credentials thoroughly restored. We eventually put the bike to bed and spend the rest of the evening quaffing cold beers and munching on snags, a sufficiently Australian evening.

I wake up the next morning, slightly hung-over and once again feeling like a Christmas turkey on slow bake. At the risk of sounding like a meteorological geek, the winds have changed and Victoria is basking in glorious outback heat from the north. As such the van is stiflingly hot all night and I’m more than happy when we hit the road toward the coast and Wilsons Promontory National Park. At this time of year accommodation in the Prom is scarce. Allocation of summer holiday camping spaces apparently works on a ballot system beginning as early as August and when I call to find out if there’s any space for one little campervan the park ranger on the other end of the line scoffs in laughter at me. We head down anyway. An hour later we’re sitting looking at the large digital sign at the park entrance stating that the Tidal River campground is full for the next month. I decide to try “the ignorant tourist” routine. We drive up to the ranger booth and I ask in as strong a Scottish accent as is understandably possible if there are any camping spaces. The girl looks at me and then the van. Within 2 minutes we have a camping spot. Ignorance is bliss!

We reach Tidal River, park up and head straight down to Norman beach for a refreshing dip. The water is, to put it nicely, significantly chillier than what I’ve become accustomed to up in Queensland. It is however just as picturesque as anything you’ll find up in the sunshine state. A long white beach with aquamarine water lapping gently at the sand, bordered at both ends by rocky headlands and the dominating presence of Mount Oberon in the background. It’s a scene that sells a thousand postcards. After 15 minutes in the water my nether regions feel sufficiently frozen to justify a lengthy spell of sun-baking on the beach. I get out and lay on the rocks just beyond the sand. The hole in the o-zone layer above quickly wreaks havoc with my pasty European skin and I’m forced into fleeing back to the campground for some shady relaxation. I feel like I should be doing something adventurous and exciting but the heat is making me lethargic and I use up the last of my energy reserves on a gigantic crossword before slipping into a mild unconsciousness in the back of the van. I wake up a short while later with Andy shouting at me to look at something. I rub my eyes into focus and see 3 men fighting with a gas bottle which has burst into flames. Their buckets of water make no real effect and it takes a chap wielding a fire-extinguisher to save the day.

I decide to take this moment as a sign that I should get out of my slumber and out into the Prom. Andy gets some fishing gear together and we make tracks towards the beach to watch the sunset and for Andy to try his luck with the local marine life. After some serious barefoot rock climbing, we’re out on one of the headlands with a rod in the water and the sky turning a pinky purple colour. The mountains behind have become dark and broody and the whole scene is stunning. As the light fades I become a bit concerned about traversing the rocks in the dark and I convince myself that I’ll end up stranded on the headland overnight. I’m almost convinced that I’ll be waking up in the morning with a snake nibbling curiously on a limb until I notice that the tide has gone out far enough to make it possible to walk back across the sand instead of having to hone my rock-climbing skills in darkness. We make it back to the campground and have to flee into the safety of the van as the mosquitoes attack in numbers. The night ends with the crossword unfinished.

The second and unfortunately final day in the Prom is a far more active one. We set off from Tidal River around midday and follow the 2.5km track across to Squeaky Beach. The trail still shows signs of the bushfires from a couple of years ago and seems a little devoid of wildlife. We see a couple of parrots perched in a tree, one of which sports an excellently ginger floppy Mohican, and one blue-tongued lizard sneaking through the undergrowth but other than that there’s little activity on the animal front. The views make up for this though and it’s spectacular looking down toward the bays and beaches. We clamber around the giant rocks at the southern end of the bay before walking the length of Squeaky beach. It’s the last surf beach I’ll be seeing in Australia for a while and I try to make the most of it. After taking in as much of the salty scene as possible, we retrace our steps back to Tidal River. There’s a monotonous 3 hour drive back to Melbourne ahead of us and the day is pushing on. It should be a sad moment when I catch my last glimpse of the bay but I know I’ll be back at some point. The Prom has that effect on you…

A Whistlestop Tour of Brisvegas

The train is eerily quiet. The only noise is the high pitch squeal of the train wheels against the tracks, yet the carriage is packed with suburban types. It’s a sign that I’m in a city. It’s a bizarre concept that the more people you put in one place, the less they talk to each other. It’s a very un-Australian feeling, in fact it feels more like the UK as the clouds hang low and gray, threatening to open up at any moment. A few stops after I get on the train, a man in his mid-50s hops aboard and parks himself opposite me. I try not to stare, but it’s difficult. He’s wearing a tweed bonnet, a saggy yellowing vest with a pen clipped on, super short red shorts, high white socks and black, velcro-strap trainers. He looks very confused but, at this point, still in control of himself. I start to wonder how long it will be before he begins his unsuccessful train hijack attempt using the broken umbrella that he’s carrying.

The train pulls into Brunswick St Station and I get up to leave, hobo hijacker follows. He’s standing directly behind me and I’m convinced it’s only a matter of time before the back of my head feels the full brunt of a flying umbrella. I’m pleasantly surprised when the doors open and I step down onto the platform unhindered. I turn around and see him disappear into the crowd, which is quite an achievement considering his attire. I head up a set of stairs from the platform and come out into a large shopping mall where I proceed to spend the next 10 minutes lost, trying to figure out where the exit to the outside world is. I walk past a woman wearing a blue t-shirt with a large tourist information logo on it and “airport assistance” written across the back. I panic. Is Brisbane just one huge indoor shopping mall connected all the way out to the airport? I start following random people, hoping they know the way out. It dawns on me that I might be following people heading for the toilets and that I’ll subsequently look like a pervert as I stand looking confused and shifty outside a toilet cubicle. I decide to keep following anyhow and the decision eventually pays off as I stumble out onto Brunswick St mall.

Pleased to be in the outside world, I make my way up the mall toward Ann St and the city. As I’m nearing the opposite end of the street, hobo hijacker comes darting out of a shopping arcade, minus his umbrella and looking shiftier than ever. I’m curious to know what he might be up to but decide not to follow him incase he’s toilet-bound. I make my way along Ann St and can’t help but admire the surroundings as the road gets closer to the city. The architectural juxtaposition of old cathedrals and Victorian public buildings surrounded by shiny new skyscrapers is a novelty for those from the old world. I get to Queen St mall and am slightly taken aback by the number of people out and about on a Tuesday afternoon. Is anyone actually at work in Brisbane other than shop assistants? The electronic, merry Christmas tunes from a million Santa toys in a discount store remind me that it’s the festive shopping period and so I make a beeline for a coffee break at Southbank instead of fighting the yuletide crowds. By this stage I feel like I’m acting out a Lonely Planet mini-itinerary for Brisbane as I’ve briefly covered Fortitude Valley, the CBD and now Southbank in a mornings meandering.

Caffeine fuelled, I make my way over to the botanic gardens and then into the Queensland Parliament. I find myself in a tour group consisting of me and a very enthusiastic chap from Hong Kong who satisfies every possible cliché about Asian tourists, including the standard Hubble telescope-esque camera lens. We make our way around a few grand and ornate rooms before getting to the main chamber. The guide explains a little about the proceedings then goes on to tell us how there are 59 MPs in the Queensland parliament and that getting them all together at one time is a logistical nightmare. Granted Queensland is a larger than Britain but I’m left wondering what he’d think about trying to get 650-odd MPs down to London from every corner of the UK. I try and ask him but he’s in full-swing with his own spiel and by the time he stops the moment has passed.

Upon emerging from the Parliament, I realise that in a lot of Lonely Planet suggested itineraries there is something about going to a trendy spot for a drink. I decide that trendy isn’t necessary but refreshment of the beer kind is. I find an Irish bar on Queen St mall and head in for a healthy dose of European culture. As I settle down with my Guinness and big screen TV showing Bordeaux v Marseille I instantly regret my choice of pub. Directly behind me is a group consisting of one girl and two guys. The girl is English and set to “constant smelly chat” mode. Her voice fills the bar and her stories of travelling Australia are never-ending. The two guys she’s with have glazed looks that suggest they haven’t spoken in hours. I do my best to block her voice out but sentences like, “yeah, the outback’s really difficult but like, the tour bus was good and so everyone should go…” go straight to the “judge on first impression” section of my brain.

I quickly finish my pint and make a swift exit before the two guys drop-dead and she directs her chat toward someone else. Once out on the street, I realise I need to find some yin to balance the yang of the smelly pub chat. I make my way to the supermarket, stock up on supplies and head back to the suburbs for a healthy dose of Australian barbeque culture. The perfect remedy…

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