Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Melbourne, via the Snowy Mountains

It's been a fast and almost completely offline 4 days from Sydney to Melbourne, via Canberra, Threadbo and Rutherglen. But we're in Melbourne now for a few days - enough to collect our thoughts about the stay in Sydney and the trip from there to here.

Canberrra was surreal. It's name means Meeting Place in some unspecified Aboriginal language, and it was build out of nowhere when the newly federated states of Australia, in search of a capital, couldn't chose between Sydney and Melbourne. Our first impression of the place was 'where is it!?'. We were approaching the city, about 7km out according to our map, and all we could see was bush. Then, when we rounded a corner, we say the Telstra tower on Black Mountain poking from over a hilltop. Five minutes late we were in downtown Canberra. It's not a particularly small place (300,000 residents) - it's just, well, sudden. The city is a motorist's dream and a pedestrian's nightmare. I'm not surprised it wore out Bill Bryson. There are arterial avenues spreading into every district (in fact the borders of the districts are very clearly delineated by those avenues) from which then spread neat and, where possible orthogonal streets, all lined with houses or occasionally businesses. We booked two nights in a quarter of the city called Kingston - apparently one of the livelier ones with a good cafe scene. We found the block of cafes and restaurants not far from our B&B, but it really was nothing special. Windswept, predictable and without any atmosphere.

After checking in, we went to see the truly wonderful National Museum of Australia, where my favourite section was the one entitled Nation. One corner was dedicated to the way Aussies speak English. Letizia has already blogged on some of her favourite items of Australian vocabulary, and here was a museum exhibit that showed, in interactive and multimedia formats, many of these items, and even their etymology (I learned that the famous 'Sheila', meaning 'woman' came from the Irish name Sile). The building itself, its layout, design and interior made it a pleasure just to be there.

On day two in Canberra - a Sunday - we started with a visit to another excellent museum, this time the Questacon. It's a science museum, the kind that Nina and Sara claim to like the most. It was very good indeed, and we passed 3 hours in there with ease, but in the end, the best museum of it's kind that I've ever brought the kids to is Edinburgh's Our Dynamic Earth (though I haven't been to London's much acclaimed science museum.

While I'm on this subject, I'm reminded of our trip to Shanghai's equivalent, which was a terrible disappointment. Much of the content was given over to manned space flight, now that China has entered this exclusive club, but all the interesting related exhibits were closed. What remained felt like propaganda. There was an exhibit on pollution, which caught our attention. I was interested to see what official China had to say about the matter. I was shocked - the section on air pollution talked about the poor quality of air in London and Los Angeles. We had just spluttered in from Chengdu where visibility was down to 5 blocks for the duration of our 4-day stay. The only mention of Chinese pollution was the issue of the Suzhou Creek, and even that exhibit was all about the great strides that had been made to reclaim it.

Anyway, for the rest of Sunday we wandered around the Australian Commonwealth's capital looking for all the people (cue Madacascar: 'We bozos got the people, but they're not a very lively bunch'). We found them eventually, split over two groups. About 40 of the them spread around 4 cafe's in the corner of the central pedestrian zone. Mostly students, probably half of them visitors. At this point, Canberra reminded us of Stuttgart after 5pm before they liberalized the shopping laws. Concrete, empty, clean, and with a few well-hidden corners with some life stubbornly clinging on. The rest of Canberra was visiting the Sunday market in the Old Bus Depot right on the edge of Kingston. It was clear from the faces of those perusing the stalls (containing the largest variety of materials and styles for toilet roll holders that I have ever seen) that they were there not to be amused, but to be consoled. Consoled that neither Sydney nor Melbourne had been chosen to be the capital of Australia.


Threadbo. This isn't so much a town as a resort. Nestled at 1300m in the Snowy Mountains, it's a ski resort during Winter and a bush-walking centre in the Summer. We took a skilift, and then walked for 2km to reach a height of 2000m from where we could see the highest point in Australia - Mount Kosciuszko (2200m approx). Another 4km walking would have taken us to the summit, but most likely to the hospital as well, so we admired it from a distance. My Polish neighbours (hi Pavel and Gosia!) will recognize the name - it's a Polish hero general. The mountain was given its name by a Polish explorer as he felt the peak resembled the tomb of the general. As peaks go, it's not terribly high, but this is an indication of how ancient this continent is - how geologically stable it's been. The peaks would have soared much higher after their birth, but eons of wind and rain have worn them away. A similar erosion of your budget and patience will take place if you hang round in Threadbo too long. We had one meal there, put paid as if we had three. My pizza both tasted and cost as if I had scraped the contents of my wallet onto a pizza base. Other choices were similarly unhappy. Try as we might to rearrange our plates between the four of us, we could find no configuration that would satisfy more than one person around the table (i.e. whoever ended up with the Chicken Schnitzel).

The scenery around Threadbo and on the road from Threadbo to our next stop, Rutherglen, was out of this world. Almost literally. We moved from deep eucalyptus forest, with the occasional roo or wallaby peering through the treeline, to red earth and bare trunks (and the strange view of Lake Hume, very low, dotted with tree trunks, similar to a lake on the road between Cork and Guganbarra) and then eventually vineyards and pasture land. We pulled into Rutherglen 3 hours after departing Threadbo, looking forward to slowly sampling some of the local wines. And that's exactly what we did. We picked a motel (which turned out to be the cleanest, most comfortable and best value accommodation of the 4 days, Motel Woongarra) and went to two local wineries (there are about 20 to choose from). After a quick splash in the pool, we headed into town for a simple but filling meal in the Poacher's Paradise, and had even more wine.

So we're in Melbourne, looking forward to converting another abstract name into a real place, and building up a mental model of life here. After this, we'll return to Sydney by the coastal route, for one night, before taking a flight to Cairns. I hope to blog once more on the Sydney experience soon.

PS: In order to spread the pain of this blog even further, I've started writing a once-fortnightly article for the Carrigdhoun - a local newspaper that covers a lot of south county Cork. The first one, on Beijing, came out on Tuesday.


dathai said...

South Cork ? That's a new one.
Carrigdhoun may cover some of it but the larger part is covered by the sea.

If you come across Paul Theroux's book the Happy Isles of Oceania it starts with some good chapters on Oz.
Earlier and bleaker than Bryson of course.

Brendan Lawlor said...

Feck. I meant Wesht Cark of course.