The best initial foray into Australia was in visiting Victoria. Within the first few days, we got a taste for the e forests, drove on the wrong side of the road, saw some kangaroos, and visited one of the country’s largest cities. It was in Victoria where we got our first taste of the warm nature of Australians in both the big cities and the small towns. Australia possesses so many similarities to the US, it almost feels like home. But as soon as you are lulled into a false sense of familiarity, a crazy animal, custom, food, or accent will snap you back to the reality that you are in a much different place.
Our trip began when we landed in Sydney where we immediately rented a car and began driving south towards Melbourne. This is about a two-day drive and we thought it would be a good opportunity to learn driving on the other side of the road and for enjoying the natural scenery. When telling locals about our plan, we encountered puzzled looks and exclamations that many had never driven that stretch of highway in the past – they mostly flew. Did we make a huge mistake? The thought did cross our minds as we left the suburbs of Sydney and began our drive through the more remote forests along the highway. By the third hour on the road, the towns began to be fewer and further between as did the traffic. But every thirty miles or so we passed through a small quaint town and were reassured in our plan. The scenery was gorgeous and stretched out ahead of us, along the highway were seemingly endless eucalyptus forests and the occasional view of kangaroos grazing in a distant field.
Our first day took us about seven hours of road time and we ended our day in a tiny town about halfway to Melbourne called Gypsy Point. We settled in for the night at the Gypsy Point Lodge and enjoyed a meal cooked by the in-house chef and owner. The lodge was about seven rooms tucked deep into the wilderness and our host was a friendly Australian whose accent was so thick, you could scarcely make out what he was saying. Not at all like the Australian accents I had heard before, his country version was much more mumbled and the vocabulary even more indiscernible. We spent two nights in Gypsy Point and on our first full day we explored the area, went for a very short hike, then borrowed the lodge kayak for a ride along the Genoa River. It was a beautiful, crowd free day spent in nature. With a free day off at Gypsy Point, our batteries were recharged for the long drive to Melbourne the next day.
Melbourne is the second largest city in Australia with a population of just under five million. Originally founded by British free settlers in 1835, it was named Melbourne in honor of the British Prime Minister of the time. By the 1850’s it had turned into one of the world’s largest and wealthiest cities because of a large gold rush and still houses superb examples of Victorian architecture. Today it is referred to as Australia’s cultural capital and is a large trade hub for the Asia Pacific region as well as a major financial centre.
Our stay took us to St. Kilda, which is a small neighborhood on the coast in central Melbourne. It was a posh neighborhood of the elite during the Victorian era and as such, contains palatial historic homes and buildings. The area is now more of a bohemian neighborhood in a tug of war between gentrification and return to the red light district and rooming house feel of the 1960’s. Colorful and full of life, this neighborhood is home to countless bars, restaurants, shops, and cultural attractions. It was an ideal location to stay for a few nights and become acquainted with the rest of Melbourne.
On our first night we met up with our friend Lauren who lives in Melbourne for a great dinner and night on the town. We met her over the course of our travels in Ecuador and we promised to meet up when we were in Australia. I am so glad that we did – it was fun to catch up and learn more about life in the city. She is a social worker and taught us about the welfare system in Australia and the resources available to the disadvantaged. It was also in talking to her that we learned about the current dilemma that faces the native Aboriginal population and how striking those similarities are with the Native American population in the US. I was shocked to hear how strong the welfare system is and how many more opportunities are available to disadvantaged people in Australia vs the US. We spent the last full day in Melbourne walking the nearby neighborhoods and enjoying all the food the city had to offer. The Asian cuisine is particularly good all over Australia and we encountered a phenomenal ramen bar a close walk to where we were staying.
The bohemian vibe of the city can be felt in many of the adjacent neighborhoods to St. Kilda. The physical backdrop of buildings built in the 1800’s and early 1900’s create a great backdrop for well designed interiors, street art, and the colorful variety that can be seen on every corner. The word that comes to mind for me when thinking about Melbourne is color. It is seen in the buildings, in the streets, the food, and the people. It is a city that marches to the beat of its own drum and has a deep respect for its past. Victoria is as diverse as it is large. In just under six days we encountered such immense diversity it made the trip feel like two weeks. Road trip, nature walk, city tour, and cultural experience - Victoria had a lot to offer us. It is no surprise why so many people fondly call it home. // Jeff