Saturday, 9 May 2009

Geelong: Seaplanes & Wooden Horses

On Wednesday afternoon, I went up in a seaplane for the first time, circling high over Corio Bay and the city of Geelong. It was a clear day, and I could match the landmarks below with the map I’d become familiar with by walking the streets.

I love doing that, there’s something seemingly miraculous about a printed piece of paper coming suddenly to life. Intellectually, I know it must depict the streetscape accurately, but to see its 3D detail from the air is emotionally satisfying.

And seeing a city from the air tells you something about its nature. As I looked down from on high, Geelong’s distinct street grid spoke of its Victorian-era founders and their need to impose order on an alien land, and the low-rise spread of the suburbs said a lot about how Australians have preferred to spread out rather than build up.

A plenitude of sporting grounds in prominent locations pointed out sport’s prominent role. Kardinia Park, Geelong’s Australian Rules Football venue, drew the eye as an island of verdant green in an otherwise dry environment, and the streets next to the nearby Richmond Oval seemed subordinate to the sporting field, bending around its shape.

Half an hour later, I was seated on a wooden horse, oscillating up and down as I travelled in circles all by myself on a restored carousel on the Geelong waterfront. I’d taken the place of a group of seniors who'd been experiencing a second childhood on the painted ponies as I’d arrived. As I went round, and up and down, it occurred to me: I have a weird job.

It’s human nature, unfortunately, that whenever you achieve a long sought-after goal, you immediately begin to regard it as mundane, and overlook what drew you to it in the first place.

Travel writing is such a competitive field that it’s essential to be as efficient as possible: making lightning visits to places while writing notes and taking photos, joining media trips with packed itineraries, and calculating how to get as many stories as possible out of the material to hand. There’s a fair bit of stress in making ends meet, and a lot of admin to deal with (BAS statements anyone?). So, unfortunately, there’s a tendency to be focused on the practicalities of work.

However, every so often I’m lifted out of my work mentality and reminded how marvellous it is to be out of my office, travelling and being stimulated by the new.

The first place I visited in Geelong was its Botanic Gardens. All notable Victorian cities have these, and they’re usually attractive; but I wasn’t expecting anything special.

My mistake. The Geelong gardens are composed of three sections constructed in three different centuries. The newest, at the entrance to the gardens, is a fascinating oval-shaped garden filled with plants that use very little water. It was constructed as a response to climate change and our sharpened awareness of drought, and a renewed interest in indigenous plants and the natural balance of the environment we find ourselves in (rather than that of the ‘Old Country’).

It’s a fascinating contrast to the earlier European-style gardens at the back. Though it’s low on grass, it’s a beautiful space and very calming, its greenery contrasting neatly with the dry gravel surface in its centre. There’s something meditative about the placement of plants and benches among its curves. A guide told me that they’d planned for the new garden to use 10% of the Botanic Gardens’ water supply, but in fact it’s turned out to only need a fraction of that.

And that’s the other thing I like about my job: regularly talking to people who care deeply about their work. Too few have that enthusiasm or are bold enough to show it, so I always appreciate people sharing it with me. In talking to a gallery owner about his customers and their collecting enthusiasms, or a guide in a top hat who enjoys leading schoolkids around the city’s streets and explaining its history, or a pilot who gets to share his love of flying, I’ve been tapping into the passion behind a city like Geelong.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Geelong Otway Tourism.