Melbourne – 2014

My flight from Singapore to Melbourne is a red-eye, and as dawn breaks, we are en route 35,000 feet above the center of the Australian continent.  Though my economy-class seat violates Geneva Convention proscriptions on implements of torture, it does at least have a window, and peering out this tiny aperture, I look down upon what appears to be the surface of Mars.  The earth is red, windswept, scarred with dried-up riverbeds, and devoid of all human presence.  Yet, in spite of this rather stark introduction to Australia, my first week in Melbourne proves a literal and figurative breath of fresh air after three months in Southeast Asia.

As I step off the plane, a cool breeze and a medical team screening for Ebola greet me.   The screening protocol forces the plane to bypass the main terminal building and instead to park on the open tarmac, where passengers board sealed buses to an isolated checkpoint for health clearance before entering into the actual airport.  The entire process seems a bit unnecessary, considering our flight originated from Singapore and not West Africa, but the circuitous routing gives me ample time to enjoy the weather, which is fair, dry, and 60F with the aforementioned breeze.  I actually feel cold and wish for my jacket, which has lain wadded up and unused for three months in my luggage.  It is not possible to describe what the marked change in climate does for my psyche; I nearly break out in song, except that such a display would undoubtedly draw the attention of the medical personnel, who would then quarantine me for neurosyphilitic dementia or mad-cow disease.

Once the airport staff allows me to rejoin the rest of humanity, I proceed to the ground transportation desk and encounter the native Aussie accent for the first time.

A chipper young woman at the counter greets me, “G’day, mate!  How’re ya goin’? Headed to the CBD?”

It’s 8:30 a.m., I just completed an 8-hour sleepless flight, and I haven’t yet located a Starbucks.  Accordingly, my mentation lags, and I answer her, “I’m sorry, but I haven’t a clue as to what you just said.  Is this where I buy my ticket for the Skybus to the downtown hotels?”

“Righty-O, mate!  That’ll be $18.  Let me check the diary here…yep, catch it on your left in 10 minutes,” she responds with indefatigable energy, “Cheers!”

“Um, sure,” I mumble as I attempt to produce the correct fare from the wad of confusing, new currency in my hands. “And,” I add, “Where do I get some coffee?”

Once settled in my hotel, an ostentatiously named hovel called the Pegasus Apart’Hotel, I set out to experience the local cuisine, and only three blocks from my lodgings I discover the Queen Victoria Market, a 150-year-old farmers market and collection of eateries.  The first shop I encounter sells organic falafel and lentil wraps with flaxseed tortillas. Having spent the last three months eating the only vegetarian options available in Southeast Asia–namely, peanut butter sandwiches, chickpea masala, and Chinese mixed rice–I gleefully purchase and consume a socially indecent number of the wraps.  “I’m going to like Melbourne,” I predict, as I buy a spelt and chia seed roll for dessert.

On Monday, I begin to call physicians’ offices, only to discover that most are closed or are closing early and that all will be closed on Tuesday in honor of the Melbourne Cup.  My two grad school colleagues and close friends who live in Melbourne inform me that “The Cup” is a horse race.  An all-day extravaganza held at the Flemington Race Grounds and attended by more than 100,000 people, The Cup is a centuries-old tradition of such importance that it has its own public holiday.  Indeed, it carries the slogan, “The Race that Stops a Nation.”  My friends persuade me to attend, and so, early Tuesday morning, I don my nicest, semi-wrinkled, mildly sweat-stained dress wear and catch a train to Flemington.

If the reader wonders, these dress clothes are an absolute necessity because The Cup consists of 5% racing and 95% social/fashion affairs.  Attendees wear their finest finery, often with a nostalgic flair to celebrate the late 1800s roots of the event.  The men wear three piece suits complete with top hats, golden watch chains, and walking sticks; I even see one man sporting knickers and wielding a monocle.  Classy.  The ladies, of course, take things to a new level.  Spectacular dresses, opulent jewelry, frighteningly unstable shoes, but most of all, hats–outrageous hats.  Lacy sun visors; posy-decorated cups that sit aslant on the head; flamboyant sombrero-like devices.  One particular arrangement I see boasts a pair of enormous peacock feathers and gives its wearer a disturbingly insectoid appearance; I wonder whether to take a photo of the woman or to spray her with DEET.

Throughout the day, everyone stands around drinking champagne and, on occasion, looking towards the field to watch one of the races that take place every hour leading up to the main event: the actual Melbourne Cup race, with prize winnings in excess of $6 million USD.  This race is 3200 meters in length and lasts roughly 3 minutes, but the intense betting and anticipation surrounding it begin weeks in advance.  When the race does finally take place, the experience of being there to watch it is memorable.  I do not know anything about horse racing, and in fact harbor an irrational equinophobia, but the horses participating in the Melbourne Cup are clearly the finest thoroughbred creatures possible.  Their coats are luxurious and their musculature perfectly toned; when they move, every step lands with absolute precision, and they seem to glide or fly rather than run across the turf.  During the brief three-minute span of the race, the 100000+ fans unite in a deafening roar of inebriated cheering, followed by shouts of joy or lamentation depending on the outcomes of their bets.  Having no disposable income, I do not take place in the betting and instead simply watch the horses.  I have mentioned their beauty, but what strikes me during the actual running of the race is the frantic fear in their eyes as the jockeys push them beyond their physical limits.  It seems sad and perhaps cruel to force such exertion upon the animals, and in fact, two of the horses die immediately after the race.  Thus, I am glad to have experienced “The Cup” but leave it knowing that horse racing has no further appeal for me.

On my first Saturday, I take a self-designed walking tour of the Central Business District, which is the “CBD” referenced previously by the cheery clerk at the airport.  My grand walkabout covers nearly eight miles in a sweeping counterclockwise circle and requires about six hours to complete.  I begin in the industrial park turned chic housing sector known as the Docklands, and then proceed south across the Yarra River to the ritzy shopping and entertainment district called the Southbank.  Continuing eastward, I come across a large park containing the Shrine of Remembrance, which is a war memorial honoring the State of Victoria’s soldiers who fought in the world wars, and the Government House, which I believe is the residence of the governor of Victoria.  Turning northward and recrossing the Yarra, I find the Melbourne Cricket Grounds or MCG, Australia’s largest sports stadium and the home of Australian Rules Football, which apparently is a more barbaric variant of rugby.  Heading back into the city, I stroll through Fitzroy Gardens, where–for reasons unknown to me–one can find a 1/6th scale, miniature Tudor village.  Finally, I pass by the Carlton Gardens and Royal Exhibition Building, which played an important part in Melbourne’s hosting of an international fair in the late 1880s.  Sunburnt and footsore, I return to the mighty Pegasus late in the evening and eagerly anticipate Sunday’s adventure: The Great Ocean Road.

I must admit that I fear broaching the subject of the Great Ocean Road because no words of mine can possibly capture the unforgettable experience of driving this route or the splendid magnificence of the natural wonders that one encounters along the journey.  The Great Ocean Road runs for a couple hundred miles along the southern coast of Australia between Melbourne and Warnambool; and during its course, it provides travelers with nearly constant panoramas of the Southern Ocean, sea bluffs, beaches, picturesque surfing towns, inland jungles, and vineyards.  My two grad school colleagues offer to take me on the famous drive, and so, early Sunday morning, we rendezvous at my hotel and set off, picnic supplies in tow, southward out of Melbourne.

Our first stop, and the official start of the Road, is Torquay (pronounced “Tor-kee”), a world-renowned surfing village and beach.  Aside from a Surfing Museum, which consists largely of a collection of used surfboards that all look roughly the same to me but that draw awed comments like “Whoa” and “Sick, dude” from the sandy-haired surfers in attendance, the town is unremarkable.  We travel a bit further, to Anglesea, where we climb a promontory on which sits the famous Anglesea Lighthouse and where I get my first glimpse of the great coastline and of the Southern Ocean it borders.  Under a smooth and uninterrupted hemisphere of blue sky, the starkly white lighthouse stands atop the crest of a verdant green hillock, which ends abruptly in a sheer sandstone cliff falling hundreds of feet to the churning turquoise seafoam below.  The ocean stretches away to the southern horizon, and as a delicious, salty breeze steadily brushes my face, I marvel knowing that I’m standing on the last edge of the inhabited world; the only land over that horizon is Antarctica.

After Anglesea, we stop briefly at Erskine Falls in Lorne, the tallest waterfall in the state of Victoria, and at an unnamed beach to enjoy our picnic, but neither of these experiences–nor indeed many experiences from my entire life–compares with our final destination: the Twelve Apostles.

The Twelve Apostles are a series of monolithic, ochre, sandstone natural towers that rise vertically out of the sea where the surrounding coastline has eroded in a circumferential manner and has left the towers stranded in the water a few hundred yards from the beach cliffs.  The structures are enormous, and the sight of them poised like sentinels along the coast, defending Australia from the turbulent grey-green waters of the Southern Ocean, is indescribably captivating.  My friends and I stand awestruck and mute for quite some time, and if it weren’t for the 9000 other tourists crowding the viewing platforms, the moment may even have been spiritual.  As we drive away, returning to Melbourne via an inland route that passes through bucolic pastoral scenes and wine country, I cannot stop thinking of the Apostles and regretting that the photos I took will convey little of the majesty those sandy citadels possess.  I decide that touring the Great Ocean Road and visiting the Apostles form an experience so inspiring and impactful that a person’s time on Earth is, in some way, not fully complete without it.  I add it to my personal Life Tally, which is the–small but I hope ever growing–list of actions, accomplishments, and experiences upon which I can reflect at my life’s end and think “Yes, these things made my life meaningful and whole.”  I aim to add many more such memories in the future, but for now, as my friends drop me back at the Pegasus, I simply say to myself, “That was a right bloomin’ good first week.”

Blustery winds, overcast skies, frequent rain showers, and a resultant ennui limit my excursions on weekend #2 in Melbourne, but nonetheless, I manage on Saturday to book a tour to Phillip Island, an islet roughly 80 miles south of Melbourne and home to the famed Penguin Parade.

The “Penguin Express” tour, which at $95 USD is the cheapest and thus most appealing option to me, leaves from the CBD at about 16:00 in the afternoon.  A few minutes early, I arrive at the designated rendezvous point and am pleased to find a nice, modern coach bus filled with only a handful of passengers.  I had expected something more like my one and only experience traveling on a budget bus in the U.S., an experience that involved an overcrowded and under-maintained jalopy, a flatulent neighbor, and a necrotic diabetic foot ulcer.  Instead, the Express, as our driver, Rodney, or Rod, informs us, provides tourists with a comfortable yet quick outing to see the penguins and is especially lovely during, as now, the less crowded off-season.  The ride from the CBD to the island takes about 90 minutes, passing through abundant farming country similar to that which I saw with my grad school colleagues during our inland return route from the Great Ocean Road.  Thanks to sparse traffic, our bus arrives early to Cowes, the main town on Phillip Island, and Rod gives us an hour to stretch our legs and to grab dinner.  Faced with a score of “fish ‘n chips” outlets or Sailing Sam’s Porkhouse, I consume a questionably vegetarian Greek salad from a dingy diner and then head out to the beachside promenade that faces Bass Strait, the notoriously tempestuous sea abutting the southern shore of Australia.

As I stand on the boardwalk and gaze wistfully, musingly upon the gentle flight of seabirds and the turbulent waters of the strait, a whitish squawking cloud of feathers and beaks suddenly engulfs me.  Seagulls by the dozens, and swelling in rank by the second, converge in a riotous screeching frenzy at the very location at which I happen to stand.  They surround me; they fly into me; they defecate on my jacket.  Simultaneously shocked, terrified, and laughing hysterically, I begin to strike out blindly at the avian assailants and attempt to stumble away as the swarming mass reaches what must have been several hundred birds.  Eventually, I emerge from the ornithic Charybdis, only to find my Scylla: a pair of drunken seamen whose purposeful tossing of Cheetos over the ledge of the boardwalk had precipitated the violent episode.  Bleary-eyed and staggering, they smirk in an besotted manner, clearly expecting or perhaps desiring a confrontation.  “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent,” I quote from Asimov as I walk silently past them, though I do give them a steely glare that could have rivaled my mother’s.

After our pit stop in Cowes, and after I clean the gull feces from my clothes, we re-board the bus and continue towards the nature park in which the penguins live.  Because of our early arrival, Rod takes us on an impromptu, off-road journey around the perimeter of the park.  Our giant coach lumbers down narrow dirt paths as we encounter several other species of Aussie wildlife that also inhabit the park.  Foremost among these, wallabies.  Dark-colored, miniature kangaroos roughly 3 feet tall, wallabies seem to fill the role played by white-tailed deer in the U.S.  “Cute devils,” Rod explains, “but not the sharpest blokes when it comes to avoiding cars.”  We also catch a brief glimpse of Seal Rocks, a craggy outcropping of the island and the mating grounds for some 12,000 Australian Fur Seals.  The gathering dusk precludes us from seeing the seals and reminds us to hurry along in order to reach Summerland Beach in time for the night’s Parade. Every evening, just as dusk turns to twilight, bands of the world’s tiniest species of penguins (Eudyptula minor) appear on Phillip Island’s Summerland Beach to return to the sandy burrows where they spend the night.  This sight has become known as the Penguin Parade, one of Melbourne’s top attractions.  We arrive half an hour before the little penguins are due, which leaves me time to visit the gift shop and purchase an absurdly expensive poncho, for dark clouds and sputtering raindrops presage a rather unpleasant evening ahead.

Shrouded in my poncho and shivering on a cold bleacher seat on an exposed hillside overlooking the misty beach, I sit with about 1000 other tourists and await the arrival of our waddling, feathered hosts.  After what seems an interminable period of waiting and after watching an altercation between two tourist families over the right to use an umbrella on the crowded bleachers, I notice tiny objects flopping about in the surf at the edge of the beach.  The penguins have arrived, and an energized hush falls over the crowd.  Photography and lighting of any sort are strictly forbidden in the nature park to avoid blinding or frightening the penguins, and so, for a refreshing interval, time seems to slow as cell phones, cameras, GoPros, and tablets disappear.  The other visitors and I must rely solely upon our own vision and cerebral matter to record the experience.  The penguins, more clearly visible now as they emerge from the foaming surf and come ashore, are scarcely a foot in height, dumpy, and comically clumsy.  They gambol about at the beach edge until a critical mass, usually about a dozen of them, assembles, at which moment they make their break across the sand!  Shimmering black-white-black-white as their rapid waddling causes their tiny bodies to rotate and alternate between their dark backs and bright white fronts, they scurry across the beach and head towards the rocky inland hills where their burrows lie.  The little, frenetic herds remind me of young children playing soccer; an excitable mass moving together as one horde.  The entire spectacle is adorable, and I join in the collective “Awww” from the audience.
After watching six or seven packs make their rapid trans-sand dash, I leave the bleachers and walk along raised footpaths back towards the gift shop.  These boardwalks give visitors up-close views of the penguins as they, having made it across the beach, wend through the underbrush towards their burrows.  At this close range, I notice that the penguins truly are about a foot tall but that their back feathers are a deep blue, not black.  The little creatures now travel in smaller groups of five or six, and occasionally make soft cooing noises.  To my surprise and delight, the throng of onlookers remains faithful to the no-photo policy; the occasional deviant, betrayed by the sharp flash of his or her camera, is quickly and mercilessly chastised by the crowd.  By this time, the rain clouds have dissipated, and the night is clear and cool, the stars overhead radiant.  The quiet of the still air, the bright starlight, the excited but respectful murmurs of the tourists, the cute and guileless little penguins combine to make the moment magical, and I am glad to have made the journey.  Later, near midnight, as Rod transports us back to the city, I reflect on the evening.  Was the experience as emotionally moving as the Great Ocean Road?  No.  Was the ticket overpriced?  Probably.  Did I forfeit the money for a memorable few hours under the stars and for a worthy conservation effort?  Most definitely.  Does my jacket desperately need a wash?  Indeed.

On Saturday of my third week, I intend to visit the Healesville Sanctuary, a wildlife preserve located in rural Victoria outside of central Melbourne and home to a large variety of native Aussie fauna.  My Melbourne friends and many of the physician clients I’ve met have all recommended a visit, and with great eagerness, I climb aboard an early morning train from the CBD towards the distant hinterlands, where a series of bus transfers will bring me to the sanctuary.

At least, that is the plan.  I should note that most people, of any respectable financial means whatsoever, do not travel by public transportation to Healesville, for the route is complicated and time-consuming.  They take day tours via coach bus, much as I did to Phillip Island.  However, my finances allow for only one grand excursion per month, and having expended it on the Penguin Parade, I must resort to the web of subway trains, street trams, buses, broughams, rickshaws, sedan chairs, and perambulation whereby one may alternatively arrive at Healesville.  Alas, a rail network disruption en route interrupts this sequence and leaves my fellow passengers and me stranded, awaiting a rescue bus, for much of the afternoon in the quiet suburb of Lilydale.

My unexpected stop in Lilydale provides for a glimpse into the humdrum, day-to-day existence of local residents who live outside Melbourne’s glittering downtown sector.  The scenes could derive from any rustic town in the US.  Empty, cracked sidewalks and faded brick storefronts line the largely abandoned main street, while a plastic and unremarkable Walmartish shopping center bustles with the activity of young families pushing grocery-laden carts in an asphalt parking lot filled with SUVs.  Radiating outward from this commercial hub lie numerous residential estates containing a nauseous repetition of small, banal houses where whole generations of families grow, multiply, and ultimately wither, perhaps never passing beyond the confines of their particular hamlet.  The isolation and macroscopic negligibility of the quiet community weigh upon me like the many layers of dust covering its streets.  Eventually, the rescue bus arrives at the railway station, and as we travel back towards the city, I feel disquieted by the day’s encounters.  In outlying Melbourne as in rural America as even in the dystopian HDBs of Singapore, myriad lives pass without ever rippling the great surface of humanity, and I wonder whether one must do so to achieve meaningfulness and contentment.  Unable to decide the answer, I slip into a fitful slumber as the bus continues its steady, droning return to the city.

On Sunday afternoon, my two friends, who are physicians in Melbourne and who form a married couple coyly referred to as H&M by our classmates, meet me at Edithvale Beach, a popular weekend destination located just south of the urban core.  Arriving a few minutes before H&M, I have time to survey the landscape.  Bounded by sandy dunes, the beach’s tawny, curvilinear, flotsam-littered shoreline hugs the gentle, bluish grey waters of Port Phillip Bay, across which looms the picturesque downtown skyline.  Overhead, the sky is brilliant blue, but drifting herds of fluffy cumulus clouds provide periodic respite from the intense midday sun.  A bracing sea-breeze whips the flags of the lifeguard hut and sends small clouds of sand swirling through the air.  In orderly rows at the base of the dunes, vibrantly colored bathing houses, small sheds in which locals store their beach gear, give the scene a riotous, rainbow background.

Once H&M arrive, our activities involve nothing special.  We go for a brief swim in the bay, which despite the summertime weather is quite cold, and I challenge H to some freestyle races.  To dry off and to warm up, we stroll for several kilometers along the shoreline while viewing the bathing houses and discussing current events.  As evening falls and a golden and purple sunset projects across the bay, we picnic on a beachside table, our feet in the sand and our eyes feasting on the delicious spread of vegetarian dishes, curries, and sweets arranged before us.  Seagulls flit about as we eat and chat and laugh.  Like the softly lapping waves at the shore’s edge, our conversation ebbs and rises, naturally but steadily–from intense debate of contemporary public health issues to recollecting humorous stories to sharing in trite small talk.   During a peaceful lull in the dialogue, I peer across the bay and rejoice in the simple, ineffable pleasure of being among great friends.  Inwardly, I recall my question from the prior day: whether, to find fulfillment, one must impact humanity at large.  I am either arrogant or humble or naive or delusional enough to respond, for me personally, in the affirmative; but sitting there on the sand, listening to the rush of the breakers and the laughter of my friends, and tasting the salty night air, I understand why some may answer “no,” and be correct.