So we board our final train for this trip. It’s an overnight sleeper, taking just over eight hours to transport us from Goulburn in New South Wales to Melbourne in Victoria. It’s a fitting way to end what we started, which was largely a rail journey half way around the world. Whereas before this trip I was a relative novice, now I’m a seasoned traveller aboard long-distance, sleeper trains, and so I’m looking forward to see how the Aussies do it. The train arrives, about five minutes late, and we find our car and cabin. Our Aussie provotnik is a chirpy chap with none of the surly-yet-efficient feel of his Russian counterparts. He barely checks our ticket (I guess if a person can be bothered to hang around in mid-Winter in Goulburn to board a train at 23.15, then they’ve probably bought a ticket) and then opens up our cabin for us. It’s clean inside, pretty plush, our beds are already made up, and we have free care packs (one with basic toiletries, including earplugs and a collapsible cup; the other has some popcorn, a cup of spring water, two crackers, two biscuits, and, oddly, a small punnet of burger relish). Ours is a two berth cabin (they don’t do the four berth Russian kupe style cars, nor the open berth platzkart style cars either), we have a little wardrobe to put things in, and a cute, carpeted ladder up to the top bunk; this turns out to be more precarious to use than the simple pull out rungs the Ruskies provide. We settle in for the night: I’m on top as usual. The trains, cabins, and bunks are slightly smaller than others we’ve journeyed on, and there’s no safety rail to stop top-bunkers rolling off to their doom in the middle of the night. The train lists from side to side a little as we make our way over the dark Australian landscape, and I have a fitful night being rolled around, worrying about falling off. In the end I make it in one piece, and even get some sleep. We’re woken at about 6.15 am by the delivery of the breakfast we’d ordered the night before. These are complimentary; Mine is muesli, toast and Vegemite, and coffee. It’s not bad, especially considering that it’s kind of free, and that it’s been delivered to our cabin just before sparrowfart. The voice over the tannoy is again surprisingly chirpy as it announces that we’re arriving ahead of schedule; we finish our breakfasts and get our stuff together; the train arrives and we alight into a rainy and still dark Monday morning in Melbourne.
It’s my first time in Melbourne, the capital of Victoria. I’ve been to Australia three times before, but always to see my family, and, asides from an excursion during my last visit to see my friend Donna in Hobart, I’ve always, therefore, hung around where they have lived. Two times in Sydney, once in Gold Coast, and this time the picturesque city of Goulburn. I’d heard people say that Melbourne has a more European feel about it, and that’s exactly the impression I get on arriving. It has a mix of old churches and other colonial era buildings along ancient lanes (lane-ways), living as relics between modern skyscrapers and public buildings, such as the train station we arrive at, the ubiquitous shopping malls and arcades, and multi-lane thoroughfares. Melbourne has an extensive system of trams that snake their way amongst the grid system of the city centre, skirting the edges of the waterfronts and city parks, before trundling headlong into the suburbs. We catch one from outside the train station; a number 86.
Our first issue is working out how to pay for the ride; on Melbourne trams there’s no conductor, the driver is enclosed and there’s no way to pay with good old fashioned cash. We quickly realise that there’s some kind of pre-pay swipe card system (like Oyster in London, or Opal in Sydney), but there’s no way for us to get any of these at present. We keep our heads down; Alex is a bit worried about us fare dodging; I have my story ready if we do get caught, but luckily there are no inspectors aboard either. We get to our destination, our final Airbnb on this trip, drop our luggage off with our hosts whilst they get the room together, and head over the road to a trendy, hipster café for a well-earned cup of coffee, and a $12 croque monsieur for me. Despite the price, the croque monsieur is of good quality and really nice.
An hour later and our lodgings are ready for us. We settle in. It was advertised as an apartment, but it’s not really. Although it does have it’s own front door, it doesn’t have a kitchen (or kitchenette), so this means the last bits of food we brought with us (including a tasty looking leek) will not get used; it also means we’ll be having to eat out at extortionate Aussie prices. The Airbnb room is done out quite nicely and artistically, but it’s really just an en-suite room with a lockable door separating it from the rest of the house. I can see why it was listed as an apartment rather than a single room in a house, but perhaps the description needs to be clearer; that, or maybe Airbnb need another category of lodgings.
Anyhow, I decide to explore what Melbourne has to offer a person who is only there for two days, has not read any of the tourist bumpf, and has no idea where he is. Leaving Alex to read, chill and blog, I head out on foot through the bohemian suburb of Collingwood, where we’re staying, and make for the city centre, logically following the reverse of the route the tram took. I decide that I’ve got to get one of these magical tram cards, which turn out to be called myki; just like me. I find a sign in a newsagent’s window, stroll in, and confidently request one. They cost $6 each, just for the plastic card, with no credit! I buy one and put $10 credit on it, exit the shop into the rain, and decide that, now armed with the card, I’ll walk for a bit instead. After a further 10 minutes stroll, I discover that I’ve wandered to inside of the free tram zone. The whole of the central portion of Melbourne city has free tram travel; you only need to pay for the trips from outside of this zone, which is where Collingwood lies. After the train journey, it’s good to take a stroll, and I carry on walking into town. My other mission is to post a couple of USB cables, that we accidentally stole back to Goulburn. I find a post office, do the dirty, tram it back, but walk the rest of the way from the end of the free zone, leaving my pre-paid card intact.
In the evening we wander out to an Indian-Nepalese restaurant near our flat. The food is okay, but the quantities are disappointing and it’s ridiculously overpriced; the service isn’t that friendly either.
The next morning we have an emergency on our hands: Alex has a scratchy eye and she’s concerned that it may be something more serious than a misplaced eyelash, and that, with two days flying ahead of us, it could get worse, and we should do something about it. The day before I’d spotted signs to the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, and it turns out to be just 15 minutes walk from our accommodation. I’m a little bit concerned about health care coverage and start flapping about, pulling out our travel insurance policy to take with us. We get there and it’s busy, but we get in the queue and Alex gets seen fairly quickly. She doesn’t have a Medicare (Aussie healthcare) card, but that’s all right; as we’re pommies, we get free reciprocal healthcare. Alex sees a nurse and has to wait for the doctor. Luckily it’s all okay and she just needs to get some eye drops. This all takes about four hours. It seems like a waste of our last morning, but it’s kind of interesting to discover how Australians do healthcare like this. I’m especially impressed with two women who are volunteers and spend their time welcoming those that arrive, asking them what’s wrong, speaking gently to them, comforting them, and passing them the odd tissue to wipe away a tear or two when necessary.
The rest of the afternoon we spend at Melbourne Museum. This is a fantastic museum. Probably one of the best I’ve visited. It’s split into various sections and we don’t have time to do them all, but we do look at the hot house; the history of Melbourne; history of Aboriginal, Straits and Papua peoples; dinosaurs and mega-fauna; minerals from the Earth, the Moon, and space; fishes and other undersea creatures; and insects, bugs, and other types of creepy crawly. It’s during this last display that an announcement followed by physical man-herding forces us to cut short our visit; just as well really, because my brain was beginning to ache with all the interesting information it was taking in. We catch the tram into town – we’re in the free tram zone, so my myki card remains in it’s virgin state – and wander around for a while and finally settle into a table in a Trattoria located on one of Melbourne’s famous laneways, behind the old General Post Office. Our last meal out on what I think of as our adventure proper: A delicious pizza, some bruscheta, some borlotti bean soup, and a couple of beers. We tram it back to home, walking the last bit, pack, and chill. The alarm’s set for 5.50 tomorrow morning; taxi at 6.20.
During the taxi ride to the airport, the driver, who is very chatty, tells us about this amazing Pakistani restaurant where all the taxi drivers go, which is half the price of the Nepalese restaurant we went to, and apparently delicious, where the owner-chef cooks because he loves to cook good food for people. Okay, well maybe next time we’re in Melbourne eh?
And here we are aboard a Philippine Airlines flight to Manila, were we’re overnighting before catching a plane to London tomorrow. It took us three months to travel from London to Melbourne; taking slow trains and bullet trains, long trains and short trains, sleeper trains, trams, trolleybuses and minibuses, cars and taxis, ferries and boats, cable cars, funiculars, bicycles, and even camels along the way. Now we undo all that hard work, coil up the miles of road between us and home, flying all the way back in just two days. For me, plane travel just doesn’t have the pleasure and realness that other forms of travel do, but it’s the quickest, and cheapest, way to get back. Rather than to really visit Manila, or the Philippines, this stop serves simply to break up the long-distance flight into two manageable pieces, with a proper bed and shower in between. This time we won’t be getting to know people, nor finding ourselves in previously unknown places; we won’t be discovering much new, nor wandering around the remaining ramparts of the old Spanish colonial city of Manila. We’ve done plenty of that, so I’m not sad about it. We’d rather get back home now, and come again another day; maybe.
I put my hand in my pocket and feel something rectangular and plastic. I pull it out. It’s my myki card, still in it’s virgin state, never used, $10 credit in tact. “Oh well”, I think to myself, “some you win, some you loose”.