Feeling A Moment: Melbourne

Friday 13th December
Having said goodbye to those on the tour I had a busy couple of hours ahead. I had spent a lot of time thinking about what i wanted to do in Melbourne but realised I hadn’t actually booked anything. First I tried the Neighbours tour – yes I was prepared to pay to be shown round Ramsey Street. Unfortunately (or fortunately if you think it would have been a waste of money) all the tours that weekend were cancelled.

Instead I made my way to the tourist information centre for advice as I also wanted to get to the Puffing Billy steam train to travel through the Dandenong Ranges National Park, to see the evening Penguin Parade on Phillip Island and a tour of the Old Melbourne Gaol. The lady at tourist information suggested a tour which combined a morning trip on the train and a afternoon and evening visit to Phillip Island. This seemed a reasonable price and seemed less hassle than arranging my own transport to the island. Unfortunately tourist information couldn’t book a popular ghost tour of the Gaol and when I tried it went to voice mail (with a message saying it was sold out).

I found a cheap Indonesian restaurant near the Gaol where the food was good and service quick and with a full stomach headed towards the Gaol hoping I might get lucky with a ticket on the door. I arrived slightly after 20.15 as that was when doors opened however everything still seemed a bit…shut. I saw a few people outside and figured I was in the right place and noticed one person who looked like a tour guide (due to his clipboard and tablet). I built up the courage and said “is this the meeting place for the ghost tour and are any tickets left?” i was in luck there was.

It was only when the guy started talking about murders and driving to various sights that i began to realise I may have booked on the wrong tour. There were 5 of us and I didn’t want to admit to my misunderstanding instead claiming I’d wanted to do something spooky on Friday 13th and the Gaol tour was full.

It was actually quite interesting in a morbid way and the guy running the tour had obviously done a lot of research. It certainly wasn’t your typical ‘tourist has just arrived in a city and does a tour’ tour though. In hindsight however, I think seeing the places where these terrible events occurred also made the different criminals and their crimes more life like when it came to reading about them when I did eventually visit the Gaol.

We visited numerous locations where murders took place between 1850 and 1950 some buildings were original some had been knocked down. Some were fights, some were brutal and others more tragic like the case of one man hung for the murder of a child only for 80 years later the forensic evidence to be questioned which proved his innocence and him receiving a pardon. The final visit was to the location of a murder by a particularly brutal psychopath called Frank Debbing who is believed by many to be and who was a suspect at the time to be Jack the Ripper.

Saturday 14th December
I had a very early start and a very long day ahead that was scheduled to exceed the time I spent on my feet in St Petersburg. I found the coach pick up point and on the journey out of Melbourne lots of sights were pointed out to us including the various sport arenas. We also travelled through part Victoria that had been destroyed during Black Saturday on 7th February 2009 and when 173 people in a number of small settlements had died. The guide told us the speed we had been doing along the freeway and said if conditions are ‘right’ a fire would have over taken us. I hadn’t quite appreciated that’s how quickly fire spread. We also passed through Tecoma which is the village protesting against the opening of a McDonald’s.

Eventually we started passing through the Dandenong Ranges National Park and arrived at Sherbrooke Forest home to Mountain Ash Trees. Here we had some lamingtons (I told the guide I’d made my own before leaving the UK) a ‘Bush Billy’ tea and Vegemite with crackers. I don’t get the big deal with the Marmite/Vegemite rivalry – I can handle either and to be honest they both taste the same to me. There I said it.

I went on a very small brisk walk towards Sassafras Creek however this was really just to get away from the crowds rather than any real belief I’d get anywhere in the short time available. Returning to the bus we made our way back to Belgrave and one of two reasons I’d booked on the tour – Puffing Billy.

It was only at this point we were told we were only travelling to the first station which I found quite disappointing as the journey would only be 30 minutes. I suppose the point of a tour is to cram in as many activities in to a small space of time but you can lose out on spending time at the main point of interest (the same could have been said about my Batu Caves tour in Kuala Lumpur)

Anyway with that mini rant over, the train ride lived up to my expectations though I added to my misfortune by sitting on ‘the wrong side’ so I didn’t really see any views. Just lots of trees. We arrived at our stop and I made sure I milked my time on the station by getting a photos of the surrounding area and as the crowds cleared one of the train.

We carried on to a small village called Sassafras which In truth was a glorified toilet stop. I considered getting some lunch but had been told we’d have time back in Melbourne before leaving for Phillip Island so instead I found another short walk to kill some time whilst I waited to get back on the coach.

We got back to Melbourne slightly late and our new coach driver said we didn’t have time to get food. Lunch therefore consisted of a pack of unopened fizzy snakes that I’d brought in New Zealand in the event such a catastrophe should arise (or if I needed a sugar rush).

Our first stop was to Churchill Island to visit a historic working farm to 19th century conditions. I have to admit when I looked at the list of places we were visiting this hadn’t struck me as a place I felt would be a memorable highlight and I found it a bit boring walking around on my own. The sun was shining however and it was certainly a nice location – I just couldn’t get excited about seeing sheep shearing for the second time in two weeks.

We left the farm and continued on to the Koala conservation centre where it was possible to walk on a raised platform through the trees. Whilst I had seen them in the zoo 3 years ago it had felt a bit artificial however this was a more genuine bush environment where they are more free to roam (if on an island). This will probably be as close as I’ll get to one in the wild as when I was on the boardwalk I was initially looking high up to the tops of the trees only to realise one was sitting on a branch level with my head. It even seemed to wake up for me so I could get a picture before I left it to continue its nap. I sympathised with how it felt.

I couldn’t see any of the wallabies that were free to roam around the centre and island. I saw a kid staring in to the undergrowth and briskly walked over wondering what he had found, hoping it was a possum which as previously mentioned I seem to want to see even though I have no idea how I’ll react. It turned out it wasn’t a possum, it was actually the only type of snake that lives on the island and which like most things over here is poisonous. The snake seemed nervous and was trying to hide itself in the grass and so I also left as i didn’t want it to tell its snake friends I’d upset it (which I hadn’t!)

After leaving the Koala Conservation Centre we headed for ‘The Nobbies’ the western coast of the island and a set of rugged rock formations created by volcanic outpourings 65 million years ago. The slight breeze had created good conditions to see the ‘blowhole’. This was a small cave where the waves crashed inside and water appeared to be ‘blown back out’.  The area was a breeding ground for seagulls and whilst initially I thought the babies looked ‘fairly’ cute when they opened their beaks they looked just as aggressive as their parents.

Eventually we arrived at the Penguin Parade which was my main reason for visiting the island. We were told that there used to be 10 colonies but human damage to their environment meant there was now just one remaining. Apparently the penguins have been nesting on Phillip Island for 100s of years and each day they leave the island to find food in the sea before returning late at night.

My ticket included the ‘penguin plus’ option which meant I was on the smaller viewing platform that is closer to the main paths that the penguins take up the beach. It was getting dark and to protect the penguins eyes artificial lighting is kept to a minimum. As I was sitting in the middle and people were talking it was a bit hard to see and hear the penguins forming in their groups out at sea however as it approached 9.00pm I suddenly saw some washing up on the beach.

As they began to waddle along making their way up the paths I couldn’t help but feel slightly excited. As the first small group went past me two babies came running out from under the viewing platform trying to grab food from one of the adults which effectively looked like a mugging whist the other adults continued by. Throughout the rest of the evening the babies continued to attack other adults which made me and those surrounding laugh.

A group of seagulls also landed on the path and initially there was a bit of a stand off with the penguins however the seagulls ran away when more than 10 penguins started walking towards them. Next a wallaby decided to join the action though seemed more interested in eating grass than interrupting the parade.

It was a very special phenomenon to see and hear especially as some of the little birds had to walk up a fairly steep hill which looking at their size was an unbelievable effort. Each time a group made their way up the beach another group would come up on to the rocks to take their place and in total there must have been well over 300 of the little penguins. I had been told the coach would leave at 10.00 and I had left it tight. On my way back and at 9.55 I saw a crowd and was told the only path back was closed because 2 of the penguins were wanting to cross it. Unfortunately they were being very indecisive/scared and they weren’t in a hurry (like me). After what felt a nervous eternity one of them crossed and the other went in the opposite direction so the path was reopened.

I ran the last bit and with some disapproving looks made it to the bus just in time; we got back to the hostel at 12.30pm. The night before I’d had the 4 person dorm to myself but this time when I got back my room mate was already sleeping. I crept around in the dark trying to find the chargers for my tablet and camera and without waking him up when all of a sudden the fire alarm started. Luckily as I’d only just returned my main valuables were still in my rucksack so I didn’t have to think about what to grab like the similar situation I had in Brisbane 3 years ago when I left my passport behind. At least when we were eventually allowed back in I could use the light to sort myself out for the next day.

Sunday 15th December
I allowed myself a bit of time to have a lie in and after checking out headed to the Old Melbourne Gaol. This had been something I was quite eager to visit since watching the Heath Ledger and Orlando Bloom film “Ned Kelly” which I thoroughly recommend if you’ve not heard of it. There is also a version with Mick Jagger…The Ned Kelly story is a fascinating one, was he a victim of police corruption or a terrorist against the state? Either way he has become a Australian folk hero and it was only last year that his body was finally laid to rest (albeit without the head which was stolen and has not yet been recovered).

The Gaol had closed in the 1920s and part has been demolished but the section that was still standing and open to the public was very haunting. There were a number of displays within the different cells on the various convicts and I read about many of the events I’d been to the locations of on the Friday evening ‘murder tour’.

I then made my way to the Melbourne Watch House which is located in between the Old Magistrates and the Old Gaol and remained a holding place for criminals until December 1994. After being told by the sergeant that I’d been arrested for being a public nuisance I was made to join a line of other criminals. I was then bundled in to a cell with 11 other guys and whilst I protested my innocence (“Everyone says their innocent” Red Shawshank Redemption) the door was slammed shut and the light switched off. We were plunged in to darkness.

Then the sergeant opened the door and led us to the exercise yard where luckily the demonstration ended as i was worried we’d be made to do pushups. Instead we were given a brief history. Apparently the building was closed in 1994 due to overcrowding when during the weekends the ‘dry cells’ were known to hold up to 18 drunk people. There was no where to lie down and only room to sit. This remember was in the late 1980s and early 1990s yet the conditions sounded worse than 100 years earlier.

After leaving the Watch House I made my way to the State Library where I had been told there was another exhibition on Ned Kelly including the body armour he wore in the final shootout. When built the library was free to all members of society so long as ‘they had clean hands’ and my first stop was to the top floor to get a view of the doom.

I then made my way to the exhibition on the state of Victoria and how it had sought independence from New South Wales by approaching the British Government. They eventually agreed because the settlers had said they would name the state after the soon to be monarch Queen Victoria and name the capital after her mentor Lord Melbourne.

The exhibition on Ned Kelly was also interesting and included a number of original artefacts including the famous letter he wrote but which wasn’t published at the time. His armour made from plough shields was also on display, as was his gun and some of the dents from the police bullets could still be seen.

My time in Melbourne was nearly over for now and I realised I didn’t really have time to see the CBD or Federation Square properly. I opted to catch the free historic tram which over 90 minutes took me to most of the main areas so that I now have a better idea of what to see when I return. My final trip was to the Queen Victoria Market which felt like a cross between all the best London Markets because it seemed to sell everything. Whilst the food court wasn’t as big as Borough it still seemed to sell the similar foods and fresh produce and I was able to get some reasonably priced food to eat.

I then before heading back to the hostel and on to Southern Cross Station to get the Airport shuttle. I checked my bag in and when I got to the security check realised I hadn’t transferred my sun cream and after sun. I asked where the bin was and the man at the desk look puzzled and said “why do you need to throw them away? It’s only a domestic flight”. I didn’t realise that liquids can be carried internally in Australia but it was good news and with a bit of spare time I was able to relax in the lounge before my flight to Tasmania.

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