After leaving Max in Seoul airport, I had a flight back to Hong Kong, a 12-hour layover and another flight to Melbourne to look forward to. All on a restful four hours of sleep… 

The sleeplessness compounded the intensely surreal experience, in Hong Kong airport, of meeting a Chinese woman wearing a knitted Angry Birds hat. This interesting individual alternated between trying to recruit me as an English teacher for her school (I’m still not convinced that this wasn’t a box in an alleyway) and explaining her designs for new clothes based on Chinese dynastic fashions. This might have been the oddest thing that happened in the past month and a half, and that’s saying something.

I spent six days in Melbourne: the first stop on a trip that will take in the majority of Australia’s east coast. Being an adventurous sort, I’m following the same route as every backpacker who has ever read Lonely Planet: starting in Melbourne and ending in Cairns, covering more than 2,500 miles. On the way I’ll pass some of the world’s top surfing spots, visit the Great Barrier Reef and might even see some big fruit.

In many ways, Melbourne reminded me of Bristol, despite the central business district (CBD) being laid out in a grid of American blocks. In fact, this conversely lends itself to the European feel of the city, as the narrow alleys between the main streets are bursting with cafe culture.

Small boutique shops and elegant patisseries sit shoulder-to-shoulder, as tourists wend their way past dining tables overflowing from doorways. Usually these tables are full of people sipping at elaborately-constructed coffees, which Melbourne is famous for: full barrista training is a requirement to work in any of the city’s coffee shops. Yes, it’s as bohemian/pretentious as it sounds. 

While many of the alleys play host to people eating and drinking, it is the clear laneways that are the most popular with tourists. Melbourne’s street art scene is lively, and the face of these streets changes every few weeks. The artists follow an unwritten rule: don’t cover what you can’t beat. Some pieces will hang on for weeks or months, while others will begin to be covered in days.

Another great part of being in Melbourne was getting to see Chloe again, and meet her boyfriend Lewis (as opposed to waving at him from across the street: the previous limit of our interactions). They live in the city’s CBD and we were able to see each other over the weekend: I extended my stay specifically so we could have two full days together. It was brilliant to catch up with them, and they’re settling in really well to their lives in Australia. Chloe is even developing an Aussie accent.

In a happy coincidence, the Australian Movie and Comic Expo (AMC) was on while I was in Melbourne, and I went with Chloe and Lewis. Chloe was even more excited to be there than I was (she hides the nerd well, but any sister of Gemma’s is going to have some tendencies), and spent almost an hour searching for a Buffy figurine; no luck, though we did find a replica of a stake used in the show. Very cool (for a given value of ‘cool’). The entire day was brilliant, and even better for being spontaneous.

Spot the Popcap fan

Something that everyone had recommended that I do while in Melbourne was the Great Ocean Road tour. The GOR stretches from Torquay, just south of the city, to Allansford, 150 miles to the West. It is known as the world’s largest war memorial, built by returned servicemen from WWI.

The tour stopped at sights like Apollo Beach, Cape Otway (Australia’s oldest lighthouse, where we saw wild koalas) and the Twelve Apostles: these last are spurs of lime- and sandstone sticking up from the ocean, although because of the soft rock they are made from only eight are left. It was a beautiful tour, but would have been better if the weather had been more Australian and less English! As our guide said, “That’s Victoria: four seasons in one day,” although Amanda, who I met on the tour, noted, “Where was summer?”

Amanda, Kim, Svenja and I – all of whom had met on the GOR tour – went on a free walking tour of the city on my last day there, along with another familiar face: Jo, the former Dragon Tripper whom I had met in Hong Kong, a month and a half before. We’d run into each other on her only day in Melbourne! I suppose that this becomes more common as you meet people while travelling (most backpackers frequent the same places, after all), but was still a weird coincidence.

Most of what we heard and saw on the walking tour is above, but one of my favourite tidbits is as follows, and a good point to close on (Pratchett fans take note):

When the first settlers arrived in what would become Melbourne (then, briefly, known as Batmania – yes, it would have been much cooler if the name had stuck), they pointed at the local river and asked the indigenous people what it was; they were told it was “Yarra Yarra”; today the river is still officially known as the Yarra. In the language of the Aboriginal people, though, repeating a word is a way to talk about “lots”. Those English settlers literally called the river, “A lot of water”. That’s what comes of taking stuff literally…you fool. 

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