Friday, 18 October 2019

Lola Montez: Un-Victorian in Victoria (Part 1)

Lola Montez. Courtesy of State Library of Victoria
In 2005 I researched an article about infamous courtesan and entertainer Lola Montez, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of her tour of Victoria and other Australian colonies. As it never went online, I'd like to share it here. Enjoy!

Bendigo had never seen a night at the theatre quite like it. On the evening of 2 April 1856, residents of the thriving gold mining town had paid five shillings to see a performance of Asmodeus, or The Little Devil.

It wasn’t the play they were interested in, but its star, Lola Montez. Celebrated and condemned in the world’s media, she was a magnet for scandal and gossip.

However, she was about to be upstaged. As a thunderstorm raged outside, a bolt of lightning broke through the roof, darted toward the stage, and struck with explosive force.

Audience members screamed, actors ran wildly across the stage, and scenery smouldered in the aftermath. The Bendigo Advertiser, with a delightful sense of understatement, later described it as “a scene of real interest, not often parallelled on the stage”.

Montez remained in place throughout. After the confusion had abated, she calmed the audience and reportedly remarked that no stage effects would be required in the circumstances: “Only a little brandy”. The show went on, increasing Lola’s popularity with the punters.

Lola Montez was the original dirty dancer and bad-girl global celebrity. Although she visited Victoria before its connection to the world via telegraph, her reputation preceded her.

She was known primarily as a dancer, but not a particularly good one; so she was an early example of the celebrity who’s famous for being famous. In short, Lola Montez was the Paris Hilton of her day. Like the present-day staple of gossip mags, her fame was forever linked to sex and scandal.

She had certainly led a colourful life before her arrival here 150 years ago, in September 1855. Her 34 years had produced a biography of dishonour and outrage that would take most people a lifetime to amass.

Born Eliza Gilbert, she had grown up in India and England before eloping from a girls’ school with a young lieutenant. After a later divorce, she re-emerged as Lola Montez, an exotic performer of Spanish folk dances.

What followed was a dizzying adventure surpassing the most imaginative fiction. Careering across Europe, Lola danced before the King of Prussia and the Russian Tsar, and famously horse-whipped a Berlin policeman on horseback. She befriended composer Franz Liszt and writer Alexandre Dumas, then settled in Paris until her then lover was killed in a duel.

Arriving in Munich in search of a dancing engagement, she unexpectedly entered into the greatest role of her career: mistress to the 60 year old King of Bavaria, Ludwig I. But Lola lacked the discretion required of a courtesan.

Her flamboyance, uneven temper and young male entourage earned the hatred of the Bavarian population, though the king created her Countess of Landsfeld. After indirectly causing the fall of governments and the king’s abdication, and contracting a new husband who she soon abandoned, Lola left Europe for America.

This is where her fortunes finally started to turn. In a nation where acceptance was more contingent on money and fame than social standing, Lola was able to milk her sensational past without being fatally injured by it. After performing across the USA and settling in the west, she heard about Australia’s gold rush and decided to tour, visiting Sydney, Melbourne, Geelong, Adelaide and the goldfields over nine months.

Lola arrived in Melbourne to find the city still humming from the discovery of gold. With the influx of miners from all over the world, and with the Eureka Stockade rebellion a recent memory, Lola Montez may have expected a frontier society which would give her greater acceptance than she could hope to find in stratified Europe.

However, Melbourne University historian David Goodman says she just missed Melbourne’s wildest days.

“By 1855, Melbourne has settled down after the early gold rush years, when new arrivals were living in a tent city in South Melbourne. It’s a ‘miracle city’, in that it was built so quickly, but it’s also an established town familiar to someone from one of the newer English cities. It has all the trappings of civilisation: police, courts, churches and schools. It’s not a wild frontier town.”

So Lola did experience censure, focused on her notorious 'Spider Dance'. This was a faux Spanish folk dance which involved her energetically searching her skirts for an invisible spider, then stamping it to death. The local critics were hostile to luke-warm: The Argus described it as “utterly subversive of all ideas of public morality”; The Age was initially impressed, until a second reviewer decided the dance was “simply ridiculous”.

Next post: Backlash (and a horse-whipping!)

Friday, 11 October 2019

The Pancake Rocks of Punakaiki, New Zealand

On this trip I was hosted by Tourism New Zealand.

The day after I arrived at Greymouth on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, I was taken to the Pancake Rocks. This geological feature in tiny coastal Punakaiki is a standard feature on the local sightseeing list. As it was a wet and windy day, I hoped it would be worth the trip and not deserve Dr Samuel Johnson’s infamous line about the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland: “Worth seeing, but not worth going to see.”

Luckily, it was worth visiting. At first glimpse I assumed it was simply a set of eroded rock formations, a sort of scaled-down version of Victoria’s Twelve Apostles:


But once we left the vehicle and started walking along the circular track which grants views of the rocks, I started to see what the fuss was about. Not only do the rocks present interesting craggy shapes, but they’re constructed of multiple horizontal layers (hence ‘pancakes’):


It’s an intriguing feature. Even better, according to signage along the path, scientists have no clear idea how the rocks happened to form in this very specific way. It’s nice to think there are still wonders in the world.

The path winds in such a way that new views are regularly revealed as it twists and turns above the ocean. At one point, looking back, it appeared as if the ruins of a great ancient city were standing above the water: 


In addition to the formations, there’s the attraction of the turbulent ocean which sloshes around them, forced up through blowholes, and crashing powerfully through surge pools such as the one below:


The Kiwi sense of humour is never far away, even in the midst of such natural grandeur. This set of formations was given extra meaning by the sign in the foreground, ascribing animals to each rocky outline:



Once you’ve seen that rodent on the right, you can never go back.

Friday, 4 October 2019

Wine on Waiheke Island, New Zealand

On this trip I’m being hosted by Tourism New Zealand.

On our first afternoon of this New Zealand trip, Narrelle and I hopped on a ferry from the Auckland CBD to Waiheke Island. This pleasant spot is about 30 minutes away across the water to the northeast, which makes it a perfect spot for a) commuters to escape the stresses of city living; b) travellers to get a taste of island life.

“Taste” is a well-chosen noun here, as Waiheke is well known for its wine. We were meeting the Wine of Waiheke tour at the dock, which would take us to three wineries over 3.5 hours.


We were picked up by minibus by guide Jill, who’s lived on the island for many years. Aboard we had 15 tour members from a wide variety of places: Australia, the UK, the USA, Canada, the Philippines, South Africa and Colombia. I like that friendly “temporary community” vibe you get on a tour with a good crowd, and that was happening here. As the afternoon wore on and we sampled more wine, we swapped stories and learnt everyone’s back stories.

First stop was Mudbrick, one of the first wineries on the island. The name came from its original mudbrick buildings, but the place has developed greatly since then and is now a complex involving a cellar door, restaurants and a rooftop terrace with views. That’s where we had one of our wines, a tasty syrah, which we enjoyed as the wind whipped up.


Next stop was Cable Bay, a winery named for the nearby body of water which connected the island’s communications cable with the mainland. The wine I liked best here was their viognier, and our wines were accompanied by an excellent spread of cheeses. At the end of the tasting session we had a look at the atmospheric cellars and their barrels. 



The weather was getting dicey as we headed across the island to our last winery, Te Motu. As she drove, Jill told us some background on the island’s history. 

I was curious as to why one of its towns is called Ostend; it was obviously a link with Belgium, but was it named after an early settler from that country? In fact, as Jill explained, a group of New Zealander ex-soldiers who had fought in World War One had been given land to settle on the island, and it had been named Ostend in memory of those who had suffered on the Belgian front in that conflict.

At Te Motu, we were met by the winery’s “concierge” Skipper, a friendly dog who stayed with us for pats as we were enjoying the tastings. My favourite here was a rosé.



By now we tour members were on thoroughly chatty terms and knew almost everything about each other; but as always on these occasions, it was time to part. A quick drive back to the ferry terminal, and we were on a boat back to Auckland. 

It was a brief introduction to Waiheke but I’d like to come back on a more leisurely schedule; maybe stay over for a few days and use its hop-on-hop-off tourist bus service to see the sights. And to sample more wine.

For details and bookings for the Wine on Waiheke tour, visit its website.

Friday, 27 September 2019

Big Things of Normanton, Queensland

In March 2018, I spent a few days in the remote Outback Queensland town of Normanton, awaiting the weekly run of the Gulflander train.

I’d arrived early in order to leave plenty of wriggle room for delays caused by rain at the end of the wet season, and even so there was some doubt whether the train would run.

Killing time while I waited for news, one morning I walked to the site of the old river port which had once connected the town to the Gulf of Carpentaria. 

I was surprised to find a well-marked cycling and pedestrian trail leading to the old wharf, 700 metres north of the town’s edge. Perhaps in the dry season people cycled along it in droves, but I was the only one using it today. 

Though I was happy the rain had paused, with the sun out it was oppressively hot and humid. I was feeling grateful for my Akubra hat, as I walked along the exposed asphalt.

On the way I passed a flood marker which topped out at seven metres. No wonder the town was built at a slight remove. I could already see evidence that the Norman River didn’t keep to its course: to one side of the trail was a green-brown lagoon of half-submerged trees, and flowers blooming above floating pads. I heard a large splash, and braced myself to see what had caused it. Just a wallaby among the foliage, who hopped away ahead of me.

It was deserted at the riverbank, though two parked utes with empty trailers spoke of locals out on a Sunday fishing excursion. Two heritage sites were signboarded: the modernised boat ramp which had had a winch-operated punt from the 1880s to 1965, and the remnants of the old wharf, which had been wrecked by a flood in 1974. Powerful floods were something Alice Springs rarely had to endure, but it was a common hazard in this would-be Town Like Alice (on which that famous novel was based).

I was sitting in the shelter next to the boat ramp, taking notes, when my eye was caught by a sign by the water featuring “ACHTUNG” in black lettering. The German word was more noticeable than the red “WARNING” in English above it, and the gist of the sign was that a saltwater crocodile had been sighted here recently and people should keep away from the water’s edge.

I relocated to the picnic area several metres farther back, and scoped out a place to climb higher should a crocodile attack. What I’d taken to be a children’s playground next to the picnic area I now saw was an outdoor gym, a set of boards with rails and inclines.

If a crocodile appeared, I was probably doomed. But possibly I could scramble to the top of the inclined exercise bench. There was also an old crane set in concrete by the wharf. Though farther away, it would be easy to climb.

Escape route considerations aside, it was pleasant by the river, though never quiet - I could hear the call of birds in the trees around me, along with the deep croaks of frogs and the buzz of insects. Small black flies crawled annoyingly over my face when they felt they could get away with it, and at one point a kite flew under the canopy of the picnic area, right over my head, to land on a nearby vantage point.

Cooling breezes blew from the river in unpredictable patterns, and the occasional car pulled in to offload a boat on the ramp. Mostly I was alone. It was a soothing experience, despite the heat and my little insect friends.

Jake, a barman at the Albion pub, had given me a card for Gulf Getabout, a local transport service which acted like a taxi. Its card promised “Like a taxi, but BETTER!” I asked them to pick me up from the river. It beat walking.

Mel the driver chauffered me to the Big Barra, Normanton’s entry in Australia’s fabled pantheon of Big Things. It was a huge replica of a barramundi, standing upright on its tail, outside a motel. Barramundi fishing was a big thing around here. 

On the way back into town, Mel swung onto the other side of the road to let me photograph the Welcome to Normanton sign: 

Welcome to Normanton
Population small
We love them all
Drive carefully

When I remarked on the flexibility of road rules in small towns - I’d noticed a ute driving by without licence plates the day before - Mel said the local police had recently made themselves unpopular by actually enforcing the law, including the need for licence plates.

She dropped me at the Purple Pub, the Albion’s rival on the main street. It was an archetypal Aussie pub, except it was painted a distinctive shade of eggplant. I ordered a beer and asked the barmaid how it had ended up that way.

“One of the previous publicans ordered new paint,” she said, “But when it showed up it was the wrong colour. He was something of a tight-arse, and didn’t want to pay to freight to send it back. So now it’s purple.”

Fair enough. I ordered a beer, and waited for my train.

Saturday, 21 September 2019

Reviews: Melbourne Fringe Festival 2019 (Part 2)

Narrelle Harris and I have seen more shows at the 2019 Melbourne Fringe Festival. Here are four new reviews...


1. Apex Predator
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

Lucretia Mackintosh arrives on stage with her Disney princess eyes and smile and a bright red clown nose. She’s offering to do a stand-up routine for Elizabeth Davie, who's lurking fearfully behind the curtain, and takes to the task with gusto.

In fact, Lucretia turns out to be a kind of slasher revenge clown, a charming psychopath, and she deals with one unseen predatory male after another in very decisive fashion. There’s gleeful transgression in the audience participation after Lucretia mimes a decapitation, and glimpses of character motivation ("They say don’t fight back in case it makes them angry. But what if I get angry?").

Recently on Twitter, someone said the Joker should actually be a woman who was told by a man she should smile more - once too often. Elizabeth Davie’s creation feels like the prototype of that Joker.  

Apex Predator is playfully savage (or savage and playful), with some of the most horrific and blackly funny mime I’ve ever seen. The pacing between encounters can be a bit slow, but it’s wickedly funny. For anyone who has endured a creeper, a groper, or any unwanted sexual advance, it's disturbingly satisfying too.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]


2. Side A
Reviewed by Tim Richards

In the late 20th century, before the arrival of CD players and MP3s, a kid’s identity was still wrapped up in tape: cassette tape. Amanda Santuccione is accompanied by a big reel-to-reel tape player, portable cassette players, and a stack of mix tapes. She uses these to intersperse tales of growing up in Geelong with snippets of music and the words of her family and friends.

It’s a warm, nostalgic trip through childhood, puberty and young adulthood accompanied by memorable tunes... until first a friend and then Amanda herself end up in abusive relationships. Music is a part of the healing process, bound up with her friendships and family bonds from start to finish.

It’s an enjoyable show, though the performer’s lines are sometimes lost to the music and the noise seeping in from the Trades Hall corridor. Audience members will find plenty to relate to in the way Amanda’s favourite music acts as the soundtrack to her life.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]


3. The Kick Inside
Reviewed by Tim Richards

On stage, Kerensa Diball dons the colourful headdress of Athena; the Greek god who, as she says, was responsible for the creativity that led to the conquest of Troy via a wooden horse. Along with Helen Mirren, she’s one of the few role models for a woman who decides not to have children.

That’s what this show’s about, Diball’s decision not to have kids and her coming to terms with that. As part of that process, she does some '60s dancing in '60s gear, takes us through her history of work and travel, and responds to recordings of her partner and her mum.

It’s a good topic for a show and Diball is a likeable performer, but she needs work on her voice projection and other performance skills to give the act the snappy execution it needs. The script also feels a little slight - at 35 minutes’ actual run time it could stand fleshing out with more complex aspects of her child-free decision.

Having said that, the sequence presenting Diball as an egg-laying insect is a piece of prop-driven genius.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]


4. Monster / Woman
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

Medusa’s story is generally well known. An evil woman with snakes for hair, whose deadly look turns all to stone, fated to be decapitated by the hero Perseus.

That’s one version anyway, and not even the most original. Medusa’s mythology is full of dichotomies and contradictions about beauty/monstrosity. All of them are explored by Sabrina D’Angelo in this superb, engaging, thoughtful and funny black comedy.

The tale begins with Medusa’s severed head on a table in the afterlife. She’s naturally bemused (and a bit distressed about her lack of a body) while a prissy Afterlife Border Security officer (David McLaughlin) quizzes her about her life and death.

After some delicious snake puns as she introduces him to the individual snakes on her head, Medusa finds some old VHS tapes. These take her back through the ages as she re-learns her origin story and how she’s been reinterpreted through the centuries - almost exclusively as a way for men to frame their own interests and fetishes.

But there’s a feminist take on Medusa as well, one which happily reminded me that Luciano Garbarti’s 2008 turnabout statue of Medusa holding Perseus’ severed head exists.

D’Angelo is endlessly excellent onstage, flowing between vulnerability, comic delivery, femme fataleness and heroic poses, with splendid physicality and a marvellously expressive face. McLaughlin provides terrific support and some sly commentary on the Medusa myth as together they work through the changing symbolism.

Monster / Woman is funny, strange and wonderful. Go see it.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here] 

That's our final coverage for this year's festival. Hope you enjoyed it! Back to the regular schedule of travel-related posts next week.

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Reviews: Melbourne Fringe Festival 2019 (Part 1)

The Melbourne Fringe Festival is on again, and Narrelle Harris and I have been seeing shows. Here's our first set of reviews from the 2019 program...


1. It All Sparks Joy
Reviewed by Tim Richards

As far as staging goes, It All Sparks Joy is an intriguing production. Crammed into a tiny room on the first floor of Trades Hall, its clutter of books and household objects allows just ten audience members to sit along one wall. Performer Dylan Cole stands within his character’s banked-up personal possessions, as if within a fort.

They do represent a fortification of sorts, an emotional one, which he’s vowed to break down in order to move on from divorce and related trauma in his recent past. Aiding him in this task is a pile of self-help books: the more genteel ones with “The Art of...” in their titles, the raffish newer ones with the word “F*ck”.

Flipping through them, starting with Marie Kondo’s volumes, he tries to discard items from his broken past, and fails utterly as nothing ends up in the discard pile. No matter how useless or torn the object, it has links with his history which he’s not ready or able to sunder.

In the meantime, an occasionally ringing phone hints at something so dark and traumatic that the experts’ advice becomes quite trivial. This is a moving performance, amplified by the compact venue, and a reminder that not every human hurt can be solved by the trite formulations of media-friendly gurus.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]


2. Wednesday Morning 3am
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

The tagline for this show is “the universe is under no obligation to make sense to you," and that seems apt. Its likeable presenter, Doctor Thomas D Richards, begins by weaving a rich tapestry of theories of how the universe was created, adding his feeling that such a huge and sudden event probably happened on a Wednesday morning at 3am, when humans are at their most vulnerable.

That’s the show’s most coherent point, after which it clambers through aspects of pigeon taxonomy, the intersection of pigeons and background radiation,  moon landings, origami, and a strange and superfluous sequence of the Earth as a little girl and her inappropriate daddy, before winding down into a weird entropy.

The pacing is choppy though the blend of science, chaos and mysticism is engaging even when the slow pace undermines it.

It’s admittedly very Fringe, and there’s a sense of a stronger though still surreal show lurking behind the space dust. Richards has a gentle, goofy, knowledgeable charm which holds this odd act together better than you’d expect.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]


3. Quite Drunk, Very Jesus-y
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

In a world where social progressives and religious conservatives seem at irreconcilable odds, Grace de Morgan’s play takes a refreshing look at the challenges of Christian faith in modern society. In it, three friends are helping a fourth to celebrate a significant birthday. To make Agnes’ 30th just that bit more significant, it’s revealed that she’s still a virgin.

Quite Drunk, Very Jesus-y covers a lot of ground in its uninterrupted 85 minutes. With Australia's equal marriage plebiscite in the background, discussions encompass being gay and Christian, attitudes to pre-marital sex and virginity, different approaches to faith, shifting power in group dynamics, love, lies, honesty, loyalty, forgiveness, and growing up and apart from the friends of your youth.

Every character is nuanced, in turns being sympathetic and “a bag of dicks”. Their innate humanness makes them warm and funny, and the conflicts very real. I’ve had similar discussions on faith and modern society with friends and family, so the play's concerns feel immediate and credible. It approaches these topics with compassion as well as humour, so we feel engaged rather than preached at.

The performances lack a little confidence at the beginning, and need more confident projection. But the ensemble cast is excellent, and uniformly believable as adults who are now less certain of the friendships and attitudes formed in their youth group days.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]


4. Sweet & Sour Dilemmas
Reviewed by Tim Richards

In the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant in a Victorian country town, a chef is forming dumplings while chatting to us about his life. We can see he's doing the former, as his benchtop is projected onto the side wall of the room, with the dumplings being shaped in pace with the monologue.

Its subject is migrant life in Australia, as seen through the eyes of a recent arrival with Chinese heritage via Indonesia and Malaysia. It's complicated, but not so to his Australian customers, who see him simply as "Chinese".

Peter the chef (played by Brendan Wan) is a likeable character dropping observations on his strange new homeland one by one, and pondering whether his newborn son would fare better in Australia, where he might not fit in, or in Indonesia, where he'd have less opportunity.

Some of Wan's broader gags fall flat, and the actor's timing needs work to make the most of his material. But overall it's an enjoyable patter, with effective (and often funny) observations of Australian culture: including a curious origin story for the Westernised marvel that is sweet and sour sauce.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

More reviews next week. Enjoy the festival!

Friday, 6 September 2019

Inside Guide to Melbourne (Part 4: South)

Continuing my guide to Melbourne's hotspots, taken from a downloadable guide I once wrote which is no longer available in that format (don't worry, I've updated it). Enjoy!

Photo courtesy of Visit Victoria

Day 3 – Cross the River

Gritty laneways and converted shopfronts have their appeal, but Melbourne’s natural attractions are also worth seeing. Catch any tram except the number 1 down St Kilda Road to Stop 19. Walk across the road and up the green slopes beyond, pausing at the impressive Shrine of Remembrance and the old Melbourne Observatory, then enter the Royal Botanic Gardens.

This vast and beautiful collection of plant life is arranged between green lawns and a lake, and is threaded by pathways and dotted with decorative buildings. Created from a swampy arm of the Yarra River in the 19th century, the gardens are the lungs of central Melbourne. Wander, admire, then stretch out on the grass and enjoy the serenity.

Find it:
Shrine of Remembrance (Birdwood Ave, shrine.org.au)
Melbourne Observatory (Birdwood Ave, rbg.vic.gov.au)
Royal Botanic Gardens (Birdwood Ave, rbg.vic.gov.au)

Photo courtesy of Visit Victoria

Cakes and the bay

Catch a number 3a or number 16 tram from St Kilda Road to the bayside suburb of St Kilda. Overlooking the broad, placid waters of Port Phillip Bay, this area has long been Melbourne’s playground.

A short walk from Stop 138 (Luna Park/Esplanade) is Acland Street, famous for its old-fashioned cake shops which were set up by an early wave of migrants from Central Europe; my favourite is the Europa.

Walking along the Esplanade, you encounter some magnificent buildings including the Palais Theatre, which often hosts live music, and the Coney Island-style Luna Park with its famous roller-coaster and other amusement park rides.

For lunch at a local secret unknown to the tourist hordes, visit Cowderoy’s Dairy. This former grocery is now home to a popular café within a residential zone, overlooking a small park.

After that, if the weather is warm enough, take a dip in the bay at sandy St Kilda Beach, or relax in the palm-tree-studded Catani Gardens. If you feel like some exercise, follow the trail for walking, cycling and rollerblading which stretches from St Kilda to Port Melbourne, with continuous water views.

Find it:
Europa Cake Shop (81 Acland St, europacakeshop.com.au)
Palais Theatre (12 Lower Esplanade, palaistheatre.com.au)
Luna Park (18 Lower Esplanade, lunapark.com.au)
Cowderoy’s Dairy (14 Cowderoy St, cowderoysdairy.com.au)

Fine food and entertainment on tap

In the evening, have dinner at one of the many restaurants on busy Fitzroy Street, St Kilda. You could treat yourself to tasty Mediterranean dishes at Prince Dining Room, or top-quality modern Chinese food at Lau’s Family Kitchen.

To finish the evening you have two options: either take in a new Australian theatre production at Theatre Works, or enjoy some live music at the Esplanade Hotel. The Espy, as it’s affectionately known, is the home of live music in St Kilda and often has free gigs in its basement bar. With a beer in hand and live music to listen to, it’s a great place to end your Melbourne visit.

Find it:
Prince Dining Room (2 Acland St, theprince.com.au)
Lau’s Family Kitchen (4 Acland St, lauskitchen.com.au)
Theatre Works (14 Acland St, theatreworks.org.au)
Esplanade Hotel (11 The Esplanade, hotelesplanade.com.au)

Conclusion

There’s so much more to see in Melbourne. If you have more time, check out the ultra-modern architecture of Federation Square and visit its great museums, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and the National Gallery of Victoria. Take the lift to the Eureka Skydeck at the top of the strikingly modern Eureka Tower and dangle above the city streets via its Edge Experience.

Even better, jump on one of the city’s iconic trams at random and explore a neighbourhood along the route. You never know what you might discover.

Friday, 30 August 2019

Inside Guide to Melbourne (Part 3: History & 'Hoods)

Continuing my guide to Melbourne's hotspots, taken from a downloadable guide I once wrote which is no longer available in that format (don't worry, I've updated it). Enjoy!

Photo courtesy of Visit Victoria

Day 2 – Indulge in History and Hipster Hoods

Though it’s one of Australia’s youngest cities, Melbourne wears its colonial history on its sleeve. After having breakfast in the cool industrial-themed laneway café Krimper, walk to the Queen Victoria Market to admire this great survivor of the 19th century.

A sprawling collection of stalls selling food, clothing and many other items, the Queen Vic Market still a favourite place to shop for both locals and visitors. The bratwurst stand is particularly famous, for its tasty sausages served in bread rolls. For a great coffee here, drop into Market Lane Coffee.

Find it:
Krimper (20 Guildford Ln, krimper.com.au)
Queen Victoria Market (65 Victoria St, qvm.com.au)
Market Lane Coffee (at both QVM's Dairy Hall and 83 Victoria St, marketlane.com.au‎)

Photo courtesy of Visit Victoria

Walk to the spacious Carlton Gardens and take in the grand Royal Exhibition Building with its distinctive dome and spectacular fountain in front.

A World Heritage listed structure, this is one of the few buildings surviving from the golden age of world expositions. It also hosted the opening of Australia’s first national Parliament in 1901, a few months after six British colonies federated to create the new nation.

Behind it, the excellent Melbourne Museum is a vast modern building which houses a number of mini-museums including the excellent Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre.

Have lunch on nearby Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, a hip stretch of art galleries and restaurants. Gabriel does great coffee and café food here, and there's fine pizza at Ladro.

For a final dose of the past, visit the Old Melbourne Gaol, a grim former prison which was the main jail in central Melbourne in the late 19th century. Its most well-known inmate was the notorious bushranger Ned Kelly, executed here by hanging in 1880.

Find it:
Royal Exhibition Building (9 Nicholson St, museumvictoria.com.au)
Melbourne Museum (11 Nicholson St, museumvictoria.com.au‎)
Gabriel (187 Gertrude St, gabrielfitzroy.com.au)
Ladro (224 Gertrude St, ladro.com.au)
Old Melbourne Gaol (377 Russell St, oldmelbournegaol.com.au)

Head out to hip Northcote

Northcote is a suburb lying a few kilometres northeast of the city centre, and is rarely visited by tourists. As the place where the hipsters fled when the inner-city area became too expensive, it’s a wonderful district of retro-chic shopfronts, cafes, restaurants and live music venues.

Getting here via tram or train from the downtown, treat yourself to a meal at Estelle, a relaxed restaurant with excellent contemporary dishes. Alternatively, keep it simple with a classy pizza at Pizza Meine Liebe.

After eating, check out a live band at the Northcote Social Club, the suburb’s most famous live entertainment venue. After that, end the evening with a drink at the atmospheric Wesley Anne, a bar in a former church.

Inside tip: Many operators in Melbourne’s lively food truck scene hang out in the Northcote area at some point each week. There's always several of them stationed at Northcote's food truck hub Welcome to Thornbury.

Find it:
Estelle (243 High St, theestelle.com.au)
Pizza Meine Liebe (231 High St, pmlnorthcote.com.au)
Northcote Social Club (301 High St, northcotesocialclub.com)
Wesley Anne (250 High St, wesleyanne.com.au)
Welcome to Thornbury (520 High St, welcometothornbury.com)

Next week... Crossing the river! (gasp)

Friday, 23 August 2019

Inside Guide to Melbourne (Part 2: Chinatown & Bars)

Continuing my guide to Melbourne's hotspots, taken from a downloadable guide I once wrote which is no longer available in that format (don't worry, I've updated it). Enjoy!

Photo courtesy of Visit Victoria

Enter the Dragon in Chinatown

Take lunch at Chin Chin on Flinders Lane, a great example of Melbourne’s lively food scene. You may have to queue to get a seat at this popular modern Asian restaurant, but it’s well worth it for the buzzing atmosphere and innovative menu. If feeling indecisive, just say “Feed me” and you’ll be served a range of dishes for $69.50.

Continue the Asian theme at the corner of Swanston Street and Little Bourke Street, where a colourful ceremonial gate marks the entrance to Chinatown, a part of the city since Chinese miners arrived to take part in the gold rushes of the 1850s.

Follow Chinatown as it rises for two blocks along Little Bourke Street to the east, admiring the colour and life of this quarter with its many restaurants and specialist shops.

When you reach Cohen Place, head left to the Chinese Museum. This small but fascinating institution tells the story of Chinese-Australian life, from the hardships suffered by the early miners to the cultural heritage added to Australia’s multicultural mix.

At the top of Little Bourke Street, pause on Spring Street to admire the graceful facades of the Princess Theatre and Parliament House. Next to the Princess is a string of excellent bars and restaurants you might want to make a note of for a later visit – The European, Siglo, Melbourne Supper Club and City Wine Shop.

One place you should definitely visit for an indulgence now is Spring Street Grocer, which makes its own gelati in-house. The salted caramel and chili version is excellent.

Once you have your ice-cream, walk down Spring Street to Gordon Reserve, a small city park containing Victorian-era statues of both the celebrated Australian poet Adam Lindsay Gordon and the British soldier General Charles Gordon. Sit on a bench or stretch out on the grass, and relax.

Find it:
Chin Chin (125 Flinders Ln, chinchinrestaurant.com.au)
Chinese Museum (22 Cohen Pl, chinesemuseum.com.au)
Spring Street Grocer (157 Spring St, springstreetgrocer.com.au)
The European (161 Spring St, theeuropean.com.au)
Siglo (161 Spring St, siglobar.com.au)
Melbourne Supper Club (161 Spring St, melbournesupperclub.com.au)
City Wine Shop (159 Spring St, citywineshop.net.au)

Photo courtesy of Visit Victoria

Secrets of the night

Start the evening with a pre-dinner drink at the Rooftop Bar, on top of Curtin House, and enjoy a view of the skyline with a beer in hand. From December to April it doubles as the Rooftop Cinema, screening classic and cult movies in the open air at night.

The rest of the building – nicknamed a “vertical laneway” – is dotted with interesting shops and bars, including Metropolis Bookshop, Cookie bar, and the Toff in Town with its private booths which resemble train compartments. The Toff also has a music room wherein you catch live music acts in an intimate environment.

Walk west along Little Bourke Street, crossing Elizabeth. The stretch of Little Bourke Street from here to Queen Street is riddled with laneways containing restaurants and bars. Enjoy a great cocktail while singing along with the pianist in the former warehouse occupied by Murmur Piano Bar.

For dinner, try the excellent tapas and paella at Portello Rosso, a cosy and classy restaurant tucked away beneath Murmur. The highlight here is the jamón (dry-cured ham from Spain).

To end the evening in style, walk along nearby Hardware Lane, then descend to Golden Monkey (open Thursday to Saturday). This candlelit bar is decked out with beautiful timber furniture from Shanghai, and serves Asian-accented cocktails along with a range of beers. It makes a romantic end to a busy day.

Find it:
Rooftop Cinema (252 Swanston St, rooftopcinema.com.au)
Metropolis Bookshop (252 Swanston St, metropolisbookshop.com.au)
Cookie (252 Swanston St, cookie.net.au)
Toff in Town (252 Swanston St, thetoffintown.com)
Murmur Piano Bar (17 Warburton Ln, murmur.com.au)
Portello Rosso (15 Warburton Ln, portellorosso.com.au)
Golden Monkey (389 Lonsdale St, goldenmonkey.com.au)

Next week... History and 'hoods!

Friday, 16 August 2019

Inside Guide to Melbourne (Part 1: Laneways)

A few years ago I write a "First-timer's Guide to Melbourne" for a company that sold downloadable city guides. It's since gone out of business, so here's my three-day guide for your free use and enjoyment...

As a freelance travel writer, I travel the world for a living – but I always look forward to returning to Melbourne. A great Victorian city propelled into grandeur by a mighty gold rush, Melbourne has been reinvented in the 21st century as a place powered by creativity, especially in its food and music scenes.

In this guide, I’m going to take you to my favourite places in Melbourne, from alleyway cafes to innovative restaurants, visiting some cool bars and atmospheric culture along the way.


Welcome to Melbourne

The first thing you need to know about Melbourne is this: it loves secrets. Bars hide down narrow alleyways, great cafes are located on quiet residential streets, and amazing street art pops up in the most unlikely places. Luckily, the locals are happy to share their discoveries with visitors, so don’t be afraid to ask for tips on places to visit.

Melbourne is not a city of spectacular individual sights or astonishing natural landscapes. Rather it’s a city of intriguing architecture, character-packed neighbourhoods and distinctive food. Take the time to soak up the city’s charms while sipping great coffee at an outdoor café, browse its boutiques, or hang out in a bar or historic pub, and you’ll soon understand why people talk about Melbourne’s unique vibe.

Photo courtesy of Visit Victoria

Day 1 -  Explore the City within a City

Crepes, coffee, chocolate and alleyways

One of the most remarkable things about Melbourne is its network of 19th century alleyways, or laneways as the locals call them. Cross-crossing the downtown area at odd angles, twisting here and there, these old service lanes contrast with the broad main streets in their orderly grid, creating a fascinating “city within a city” which has been populated by funky cafes, shops and bars.

To start your exploration of the laneways, pull up a seat at one of the tiny tables at Aix Creperie in Centre Place. Order a sweet or savoury crepe and watch the flow of pedestrians pass the lively hole-in-the-wall cafes which line this pedestrian route, or spot the colourful street art on its walls.

Around the corner in Flinders Lane, Dukes is the place to stop for coffee – you’ll recognise it by the simple sign hanging out front, bearing only an image of a coffee cup. Cut back through Centre Place and the connected Centreway Arcade to Collins Street, still the gracious boulevard of upmarket boutiques and grand buildings it was in Victorian times.

Enter Block Arcade, a glamorous survivor of that era with its beautiful mosaic floors and high arched ceiling, and admire the posh shops as you pass through. One place that won’t break your budget here is Haigh’s, one of several excellent chocolatiers in the city centre.

If you fancy a snack, pick up one of their dark chocolate peppermint frogs and walk through adjoining Block Place, a bustling laneway packed with cafes, then across Little Collins Street into Royal Arcade. This grand shopping arcade is full of distinctive gifts and fashion, along with the best hot chocolate in Melbourne, served by Koko Black.

Turning right onto Bourke Street Mall, watch out for the trams trundling through this pedestrian route as you head east toward Swanston Street. Look up as you go, to spot several attractive art deco facades which are often overlooked by passers-by.

Thread right through Union Lane past colourful street art, then left along Little Collins Street until you reach the grand Melbourne Town Hall, an ornate building which was a product of the prosperous “Marvellous Melbourne” era of the late 19th century.

Here you’ll discover the City Gallery, a small, free space which hosts fascinating exhibitions connected with the city’s past. Check out the gallery, then sit on a bench near the flower stall outside and take a break while watching the passing parade on this lively thoroughfare.

Find it: 
Aix Creperie (24 Centre Pl)
Dukes Coffee Roasters (247 Flinders La, dukescoffee.com.au)
Haigh’s Chocolates (Block Arcade, 282 Collins St, haighs.com.au)
Koko Black (Royal Arcade, 335 Bourke St, kokoblack.com)
City Gallery (110 Swanston St, melbourne.vic.gov.au/citygallery)

Next week... Enter the dragon! (ie Melbourne's Chinatown)

Friday, 9 August 2019

Ballyhoo on the Bally Hooley Railway, Port Douglas

On my visit to Port Douglas I was hosted by the Bally Hooley Railway.


When visiting Cairns last year, I was unable to ride the Kuranda Scenic Railway because of cancellations due to rockslides. So I took a bus to Port Douglas to try out a substitute: the Bally Hooley Railway. 

Parked at a platform at one end of the marina’s shopping arcade was an open-sided train. Its carriages’ bright yellow wooden benches, decorative wrought-iron doors, and firetruck red roof made it look like a funfair novelty, but it had an industrial heritage. 

“The carriage beds are from real sugar cane bins,” said the young train driver wearing a baggy blue cap, referring to the carts hauled by narrow-gauge locomotives through the cane fields of the region.

These modified carriages were attached to an original loco from the cane fields, a blocky, blunt-nosed diesel workhorse that looked like it packed a lot of power for something that ran along track a mere 610 millimetres (two feet) wide. On this damp Sunday it was half-full of day-trippers waiting for it to chug down to its terminus and back, calling at three stops along the way.

The station was an attractive timber structure pained white, with a cafe serving meals at tables on the platform beneath ceiling fans and wicker light shades. Throw in a gin and tonic, and it could have been the Last Days of the Raj.


We pulled slowly out. “It averages 15 kilometres per hour,” said our guide via a microphone, providing a commentary as we progressed. As we passed the waters of the marina, he gave a sketch of the late disgraced businessman Christopher Skase, whose Sheraton Mirage Resort was largely responsible for Port Douglas’ transformation into an upmarket tourist town in the 1980s.

Then we passed the town’s waste water treatment plant, and a sign advising of a coming “sludge treatment upgrade”.

According to our host, this sugar cane line was built over a century ago to serve the sugar industry of inland Mossman, whose refinery still produced over a million tonnes of sugar per week. So Port Douglas had got its own railway eventually, even if it was for sugar rather than people.

Sugar was brought down by train to be loaded onto ships at Port Douglas, but improved road transport had made the railway redundant. Now it had become a brightly-painted tourist train, usually pulled by steam locomotives at weekends (though we’d lucked out because an accredited driver couldn’t be found that day).

Port Douglas is on a stumpy peninsula nosing into the Coral Sea, so as we moved south we could see the mountains of the Great Dividing Range across the water to our right. Closer to hand were eucalypts, and mangroves beyond them.

There were two stations between the Marina Station and the train’s terminus. The first was at the Mirage Country Club, where the railway was lined by immaculate if unused tennis courts. The second was at the QT Resort, whose long white building shared the marina’s colonial tropicana look. 

We passed older blocks of housing built by Skase for his construction workers, then arrived at the terminus, St Crispin’s Station, which housed a cafe with water views.

I stood with other rail fans to watch the crew drive the locomotive onto a turntable (see video clip above), then turn it through 180 degrees using nothing more than physical strength. It then ran past our carriages on a parallel line, to position itself for the return run north. It was a delight to watch the operation, there was something pleasingly analogue about the simple technology involved.

Back aboard, I found myself seated with new fellow passengers, an affectionate couple on a day out. 

“Pity it’s not steam today,” said the man, meaning the locomotive. I demurred, pointing out the diesel loco was just as much a part of sugar cane farming history. He didn’t seem convinced.

On the return leg, the host pointed out lipstick palms with their red trunks, and told us how expensive it was for the shire council to maintain the thousands of coconut palms in the area, which posed a potentially fatal hazard via falling fruit.

We passed more tennis courts and I noticed two of them were a dark grey.

“See that tennis court?” asked the voice. “That’s covered with algae. It’s a non-stop job keeping things clean in the Wet.”


He then detailed all the items in the 47 tons of equipment that Captain James Cook threw overboard from the Endeavour north of there in 1770, when the ship ran aground on a reef. National Geographic had led a recent expedition to recover it, and salvaged items were on display at the museum in Cooktown.

“It wasn’t until the 1960s that Port Douglas was linked to the electricity grid,” he said, moving forward in time. “Just up the road from here to the north, it’s still the same.”

He finished by detailing the recent acquisition of the marina by Syrian billionaire Ghassan Aboud, and his plans to bulldoze the current building and rebuild in an even more upmarket style, catering for super yachts (whatever they are). Port Douglas had lost some of its celebrity-fuelled glam since the global financial crisis a decade before, so this was a chance to revive it.

It was hard to imagine Port Douglas was once a serious contender for chief city of Far North Queensland, but if the Ranges railway had been built from here it would now be a glittering tropical metropolis. Instead, it had bumped along the decades as a sugar port, then a sleepy fishing village, and latterly a getaway place for the well-heeled and super-rich. 

On the way back to Cairns, I asked the bus driver if he was worried the new owner’s plans for the marina might fall over.

“Of course,” he said. “But someone has to give it a try.”

Find timetables and other info at the Bally Hooley Railway website.

Friday, 2 August 2019

The Practicalities of Penzance

On this trip I was hosted by Visit Britain.

For all the glamour of travel, there comes a time when you have to stop admiring the scenery and get down to some practical travel admin.

One of these necessary tasks is doing laundry, especially if you travel as light as I do. I only take a backpack with me, so it's essential to do a regular wash.

On Wednesday 29 May I caught a train from London to Penzance, having the previous day caught two trains over the very long route of Zürich to London via Paris.

When I arrived in the Cornish city about 3pm, I was very tired from all that travel. But crucially, I didn't have anything else on my itinerary that day. So when I stepped out of Penzance Station and saw on opposite corners a) a laundrette; and b) a pub, I took it as a sign.

Washing had to be done, right then, and as much as possible while I had time to take advantage of the opportunity. So I stepped into the Suds & Surf laundrette and found out what I'd need in the way of coins, and how long it'd take.

Then I walked back to the train station loos, and re-dressed in order to get as much laundry done as possible. I walked out wearing an outfit which consisted of (in its entirety) my black jacket over a fleece jacket, my good black trousers, and my boots without socks. Everything else was going in the wash.

This is where the pub came in. Having put on a laundry load that would take 45 minutes in the industrial-scale machines, I stepped across the corner to The Longboat Inn. Under the guidance of the barman I ordered a local brew, a Tribute Cornish Pale Ale from the St Austell Brewery (see photo top right).

It was excellent, and I sat sipping it on a sofa while engaging in conversation with an English and American couple who were travellers in Cornwall themselves.

After 45 minutes, I asked the barman to mind my backpack, then stepped across the road to put my clothes in the dryer. Then back to the pub for another beer. I can't see how this system could be beaten.

I spent the next two days sightseeing and researching, visiting the island icon of St Michael's Mount and the wonderful hillside sculpture garden at Tremenheere. But I also visited the Penzance post office for another useful chore - posting a load of stuff home.

This is another travel chore I regularly undertake, in order to keep the backpack's weight bearable. When it's ballooned from 8 kilograms to 10 kg, you really feel it. And having come to Cornwall via Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Paris and London, I had a lot of added items such as brochures and souvenirs.

They were worth keeping, but not needed till I got home. So I posted them to Australia, and was glad to offload their 1.5 kg weight. To be frank, by the time the backpack reaches 10 kg I feel like I don't care if I never see those items again, as long as they're gone.

So that was my practical Penzance travel admin. Hardly rock 'n' roll travel, but all quite necessary and a pleasure to have completed. And the ale eased it along.

What are your essential-but-strangely-pleasurable tasks when you're travelling? Leave a comment below (treat it as a useful chore).

Friday, 26 July 2019

Review: Come from Away, Melbourne


I first heard of this musical at a business lunch, of all things. As it’s set in Newfoundland, the marketing body Destination Canada invited the producer along to an event where reps from Canada’s different provinces sing their praises to journalists.

Newfoundland’s probably the least known province to Aussies, or close to it, as it’s so remote. But that remoteness lies at the heart of this musical, which tells the story of what happened in a small Newfie town after the events of 11 September 2001.

Gander once had a big and busy airport, used as a refuelling stop by aircraft in the early days of trans-Atlantic flight. But as commercial planes became powerful enough to leap that ocean in a single bound, its airport slipped into irrelevance.

Until September 11. When US airspace was shut down after the terrorist attacks on New York City, dozens of passenger planes in the air were ordered to land at Gander, whose runways were big enough to cope with most aircraft.


It soon became obvious that their passengers were going to be stuck in Gander for an indeterminate number of days. As the town instantly doubled in population with these thousands of newcomers, crisis loomed – until the people of Gander leapt into action, housing the stranded, making them meals, inviting them home, even taking care of the animals that had been overlooked in aircraft cargo holds.

It’s a heartwarming true story, set to a background of tragedy, and it was this example of human generosity that inspired Come from Away’s creators to set it to music. I would never have considered that genre for a drama like this, but it’s perfect – the music and choreography perfectly brings out both the pace of those days and the emotions of all involved.

To the production’s credit, it isn’t at all syrupy. There’s a lot of positivity in the dialogue and lyrics as the startled townsfolk and dazed passengers get to know and help each other, but there are also darker undertones that anchor the story to reality.

These include suspicions levelled at Muslims among the passengers, tensions within frayed relationships, worries about loved ones far away, and always the horror of what has happened in New York. This last factor is crystallised in the form of a woman whose son is a firefighter in NYC, she having no idea of whether he’s alive or dead.


The cast do a marvellous job of speaking, singing, dancing, interacting, at a nonstop pace which reflects what it must have felt like to be in Gander for those four fraught days. Actors play multiple roles, switching from passengers to townspeople to officials via simple but effective changes in clothing or headwear.

There’s some lovely overt humour, including that of the townswoman whose reports to the audience always involve her in an imaginary romantic entanglement with whatever sexy pilot or doctor or teacher she’s been dealing with. There are also laughs from the mild collision of small-town ways with those of the wider cosmopolitan world, re food and sexuality and language.

In the end, Come from Away is a homage to the better side of humanity, while never overlooking its worst impulses. In its portrayal of a crisis that left no one unchanged by the strange interlude they spent in the middle of nowhere in the aftermath of destruction, it’s a potent message of hope and a great mood enhancer.

Come from Away is now playing at the Comedy Theatre, 240 Exhibition Street, Melbourne, Australia. For details and bookings, visit the Australian production’s website.

Friday, 19 July 2019

Food and English in Zürich, Switzerland

On this trip I was hosted by Switzerland Tourism, and travelled via the excellent Swiss Travel Pass.

Something interesting I noticed on my recent visit to Switzerland was the prevalence of English language signage. Because the country famously has four official languages (German, French, Italian and Romansh), I expected that signs would often be in multiple translations.

In reality though, as I travelled through the mainly German-speaking area of Switzerland, I rarely saw signage in any but two languages: German and English. In fact I was told by a local that English is so well-established as a lingua franca that a Zürich businessperson who phoned a counterpart in Geneva would probably speak in English.

I guess if you're a country that already has four languages, it's not much of a hassle to throw a fifth into the mix.

This was brought home strongly to me at the annual Street Food Festival held under a big top in the ex-industrial-now-hip neighbourhood of Zürich West. The name of the festival itself provides a strong hint at how widely English is used in Switzerland, but as I walked around the stalls I saw English signage all over the place.

Have a look:







Things have certainly changed since I first travelled to Europe in 1990, when you'd have to make an effort to learn some of the local lingo of non-English-speaking countries you'd visit. No wonder we Anglo-Saxon types are so lazy about language learning nowadays.

The Street Food Festival has closed for 2019, but keep an eye on its website for 2020 dates.

Friday, 12 July 2019

Glaciers and the Red Bus in Montana, USA

In 2009 I took my first-ever trip to the USA, courtesy of the Montana Office of Tourism and Virgin Australia. My resulting newspaper article about a visit to Glacier National Park never went online, so here it is for your enjoyment...

Everything about Montana is big, from the towering Rocky Mountains in its west to the sprawling plains of the east.

And up the top of its “big” list are the glaciers and peaks of Glacier National Park, a spectacular spread of craggy mountains, glacial lakes and huge chunks of ancient ice nestled between them.

“It’s incredible to first timers,” says our driver and tour guide Jana Grindheim. “People don’t know about Glacier, it’s not as famous as Yellowstone. But it’s like nothing they’ve ever seen, and they’re just amazed at the mountains.”

As we progress into the park past the waters of Lake McDonald I begin to see what Jana means, via glimpses of enormous sharp-edged peaks to the northeast. The evocatively-named Going-to-the-Sun Road may be flat and spacious now, but soon it’ll be transporting us upward, past rugged mountains on one side and a sheer drop on the other.

Though its namesake glaciers are shrinking as the climate changes, those that remain are diverse and magnificent, especially within the Many Glacier Valley in the park’s east.

However, the mountain scenery alone is sensational enough to prompt a visit, and we’ll be getting a full dose of it as we traverse the entire Going-to-the-Sun Road from Apgar to St Mary.

The road is a story in itself, an epic construction project completed in 1933.

It borrows its name from a mountain along its route, named from a Native American Blackfeet legend about a deity who came from the sun and taught them how to hunt, then returned home after leaving his image on the slopes.

We’ll be hugging the narrow road in a vehicle that’s a tourist attraction in its own right, one of the park’s fleet of Red Buses. These bright red open-topped vehicles, resembling an extended car with a fold-back roof, each hold 17 people and have been used for tours of the park since the mid-1930s.

With its sleek lines and a radiator grille that looks like it was swiped from an art deco limousine, our Red Bus is a very stylish way to explore Glacier. On top of all that, Glacier is the only national park to still be operating these classic vehicles, as other parks retired their fleets decades ago (take that, Yellowstone).

The Red Bus drivers are a special breed are known as “jammers”, a name inherited from the days when the gears of the vehicles would grind and jam as they hauled their passengers up the slopes.

Our jammer for the day, Jana, is fond of her daily grind. “I get to drive on the beautiful red buses that everybody loves,” she says, “And I get to see Glacier National Park, the most beautiful place in the world, every day.”

Sounds like a recipe for job satisfaction to me. And as we pass beyond Avalanche Creek and its picturesque boardwalk through the cedars, the landscape opens up, we begin to climb, and I see what she loves about the place.

For it is grand - there’s no other word for it. Beyond the cedar forest the mountain slopes stretch high above us, bare and craggy as they reach sharply defined peaks, tinged purple in the midday heat.

The most startling formation is the Garden Wall, a long narrow ridge of sharp, rocky projections streaked with horizontal bands of colour. It’s so narrow that in places it would be possible to sit astride it, with legs dangling along each slope.

There are also signs of how powerful Dame Nature can be when she rubs her hands and gets down to work. Pausing the bus, Jana points out a massive trail of damage down the slope above us, where dozens of trees lie fallen.

This was the work of a mighty avalanche that plummeted through some time during winter, blocking the road; because it’s closed during the icy months, no-one saw it happen.

To the west is the beautiful Heavens Peak, at 2739 metres one of the higher mountains in the park, with a dusting of snow despite the Indian Summer warmth.

We’re reminded again of the park’s lofty snow and ice as we pass the Weeping Wall, a section of rock constantly flowing with run-off from the glaciers above.

Finally, having passed a profusion of impressive peaks and peered down into distant tree-lined valleys, trying to not think too hard about the tiny stone wall stopping errant vehicles from plunging to their doom, we arrive at Logan Pass.

It’s the highest point on the road and a natural spot for a break, with its visitor centre and sign marking the location of the Continental Divide, which runs right through the park. A geographical curiosity, this line divides North America into two sections from which all water flows downhill toward either the Pacific or the Atlantic, depending on which side it falls.

Logan Pass is also a rest stop along the park’s numerous hiking trails. While the rest of our group troops off to have a look at the neighbourhood, I linger by the bus to ask Jana about hiking. Being Australian, however, I’d be a little nervous about the idea of encountering bears along the way. Has she ever seen any?


“Oh yeah,” she says casually. “In the Many Glacier Valley, just over these mountains, there are a lot of grizzly bears. By the Many Glacier Hotel you can see them, not ten feet away.”

I’d rather be viewing them from a bit further away than three metres, but Jana is reassuring. “I’ve never had any dangerous situations with bears. Usually when you see them they don’t care about you, unless you scare them.”

Making a mental note not to scare any bears, I return to the topic of hiking. Does she have a favourite walk?

“I have several,” she nods. “There’s one, Gunsight Path, which is a 20 mile hike with a backpack. It’s incredible. You hike up past lakes, snowfields, waterfalls, and camp at Lake Ellen Wilson. It looks like an infinity pool, dropping off the edge of the earth.

"You also have an option to continue to a glacier. The other one you can do from here is the Floral Park hike, and you walk across Sperry Glacier on the way. There are rivers and crevasses and it’s amazing.”

It’s almost an anticlimax to get back into our old Red Bus and drive east for the descent to St Mary, sighting the Jackson Glacier as we go.

But I do get a small adrenaline rush when we briefly leave the bus to walk through the trees to look at the tiny Wild Goose Island in the middle of St Mary Lake.

We might see a bear, I imagine. But we don’t, not even a small one.

As we head out of Glacier, I discover that Jana is on her way out as well.

“My husband and I fell in love with the park the first time we came here but now we’re joining the Peace Corps, and we’ve got one last hurrah with the mountains.”

Will she miss being a jammer?

“Yeah,” she says firmly. “Best job in the park. Best job in the world.”

For details of the Red Bus Tours in Glacier National Park, click here.

Friday, 5 July 2019

A Walk Through Literary Dublin

Statue of Oscar Wilde
in Merrion Square, Dublin.
On this trip I travelled courtesy of Tourism Ireland and Aer Lingus. This story arose from my 2011 visit to Dublin but never went online, so here it is for your enjoyment...

“We call him ‘the prick with the stick’,” says tour guide Pat Liddy, cheekily referring to a statue of the writer James Joyce which stands proudly in busy O’Connell Street, Dublin.

It might seem disrespectful, but inventing such acid nicknames is a casual hobby to Dubliners, who’ve applied them to many statues in the Irish capital.

For example, a busty statue of Molly Malone, who sold “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive-oh” in the famous song, is commonly known as ‘the tart with the cart’.

It's all in good fun, says Liddy, smiling as he returns to his pint of Guinness in an atmospheric old pub which is, as it happens, an former haunt of Joyce’s.

It seems somehow fitting that we should be on a literary walk that’s immediately ended up at the pub, given the central role of such establishments in Ireland’s social and cultural life.

Pat Liddy outside Mulligan’s, Dublin.
Having left Trinity College, which contains the famous Book of Kells, we were assaulted by a driving rainstorm that appeared from nowhere, and have taken refuge in Mulligan’s until the weather eases.

It’s a classic Irish pub, with a dimly-lit back room where we sit around chipped old timber tables, a huge gilt mirror on the wall behind us.

Mulligan’s has a literary pedigree of its own, says Liddy, as a longtime hangout of Irish Times journalists and of Joyce, who mentioned the establishment in his landmark novel Ulysses.

The outside of the pub is even painted with the date of Bloomsday (June 16th, 1904), the day in which the novel’s story is set.

As we sip Ireland’s most famous beer, Liddy tells us about the wealth of writers that the city has produced. For a city of a million people, Dublin has a remarkable back catalogue of literary heroes, including Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw and Jonathan Swift. And let's not forget Bram Stoker, whose popularisation of the vampire lives on to the present day.

Liddy is a great story-teller, and he’s easily diverted into amusing anecdotes from his life and tour work. He chats about his son’s train journeys through Asia and Russia, and tells us about having to explain Oscar Wilde to foreign visitors. There’s also a witty story about the time he had to sing Handel’s Messiah to a group of German visitors who’d never heard of it.
Oscar Wilde's birthplace, Dublin.

The beer and the craic are very diverting, but we have pavements to pound. The rain clears and we're off again, through the atmospheric historic streets south of the River Liffey.

We’re entering Oscar Wilde territory here; as we stroll, Liddy points out the former St Mark’s where the great playwright was baptised.

Then we arrive at 21 Westland Row, a respectable facade featuring a big blue door beneath a fanlight.

This is where Wilde was born, and an inscription within a stone wreath credits him as ‘Poet, Dramatist, Wit’. Those are words I’d be happy to have on my gravestone, I think, as we move on.

Our next stop is Sweny, an attractive small shopfront which was featured in Ulysses in its then role as a pharmacy. It was here that the book’s hero, Leopold Bloom, bought a cake of soap with a lemon scent. Remarkably, it remained a pharmacy right up to 2009, when it passed into the care of a group of volunteers who run it as a bookshop and an unofficial shrine to Joyce.

You don’t have to be a fan of Ulysses to appreciate the shop’s atmospheric interior, packed both with books and reminders of its apothecary days. There’s even a drawer full of old photos once developed here, to show visiting kids who may only be familiar with digital shots.

Wendy Conroy at Sweny, Dublin.
The remaining space is lined with new and second-hand copies of books by Irish writers of all eras.

It’s a great place for visitors to acquaint themselves with both the classics and the lesser-known gems of Irish lit, and to pick up some reading for their travels.

Behind the counter today is Wendy Conroy, a passionate fan of Joyce’s master work. “There are Conroys all the way though Ulysses,” she points out.

Not that Joyce was the only star of the written word to hang out in this neighbourhood. “Wilde and Yeats may well have stood where you’re standing,” she says.

From here it’s a short walk around the corner to Merrion Square. Opposite the park stands the house where the young Oscar grew up, and in the park itself is a wonderful surprise - a colourful statue of Wilde which was unveiled in 1997, over a century after being imprisoned for his homosexuality.

A symbol of his 21st century rehabilitation and popularity, the unconventional statue depicts Wilde lounging in a colourful jacket on a large rock, a smile on one side of his face and a grimace on the other. The mixed expression may be a reminder of his mixed fortunes, as perhaps are two smaller nearby statues of his wife Constance and an anonymous male torso.

The plinths of these statuettes are adorned with many of his famous sayings, one of which seems to sum up Wilde’s sensational life: “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”.

Davy Byrne’s, Dublin.
Heading back toward the bars and restaurants south of the Temple Bar district, we pass another pub mentioned in Ulysses: Davy Byrne’s, where Bloom ordered a gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of Burgundy.

Though the pub has been renovated in a swish modern style and now specialises in seafood, it’s still a meal you can order there today.

Then, finally, we finish at McDaid’s. It’s a popular pub which has retained its original character, furnished with bookshelves, tiled panels and a high timbered ceiling.

This was a haunt of postwar playwright and novelist Brendan Behan, says Liddy, at least until the one-time IRA member was barred. It was also, inevitably, frequented by Joyce and the other Irish writers who milled around this part of Dublin.

It’s been a great tour. Via Liddy's enthusiastic and colourful delivery, the city's great books and their writers have come to life - and even though I haven't read all of them, I go away with a hunger for their work and an understanding of how much Dublin loves its stories.

Pat Liddy’s Walking Tour of Literary Dublin is available on request. See www.walkingtours.ie for contact details and other scheduled tours.