Monday 25 May 2009

Dandenong Ranges: The Hills are Alive!

I'm standing in a clearing about three-quarters the way up a steep slope in the Dandenong Ranges National Park east of Melbourne, and I've just startled a wallaby.

As I was crunching my way along a ridge, trying to see a way around the fallen trees that were blocking the marked track, the brown furry creature bounced rapidly away from my position, heading downhill.

About 50 metres behind me is Narrelle, taking a break after realising she's wearing quite the wrong shoes for a track this steep and leaf-strewn.

There's just a tinge of Macbeth about our situation - in that returning downhill is as tedious as to go o'er - so we really need to find a way up the last bit of the slope to the roadway we know is nearby. But at least we saw some crimson rosellas on the way up. Very pretty.

I'm over-dramatising, of course - we're not really in any trouble. We know the road and a golf course is just up there on top of the ridge, we could still reverse our steps back down the hill to the RJ Hamer Forest Arboretum, and it's the middle of the day so there's little chance of the sun setting before we get out.

I probably even have mobile phone reception. And it is very beautiful in this expanse of native forest, surrounded by gum trees, mountain ash trees and tree ferns.

And this always happens to me when I visit the Dandenong Ranges. Keen to bushwalk, I consult a simple map that includes tracks but not topographical info, and inevitably find out that part of the walk is much harder than expected. But I've always come back alive.

On this occasion I go back to fetch Narrelle, and we walk along to a point where the undergrowth is minimal. Then we start up the remaining slope - and are immediately surprised to see a woman in a pink shirt strolling along what must be an intersecting track above.

Fairly soon we're walking along the edge of the golf course, back to the sealed road. I can tell we're in civilisation, because there's a man in a cap trying to rescue his golf ball from the long grass on the fenceline between wilderness and manicured greens.

Walking along the road back to the town of Olinda, we're slightly startled by the contrast. A few minutes before we were picking our way up a poorly marked track on a slope in the middle of nature; now we're walking past cars and modern signage, and soon stepping into the golf course's cafe for a rehydrating drink.

On the basis that you're allowed to eat whatever you want after vigorous exercise, we'll soon be purchasing a couple of meat pies for lunch for Olinda's excellent (and much-touristed) Pie in the Sky pie shop.

Which is part of what I like about the Dandenong Ranges National Park. Rather than being an area of total wilderness, it's actually a long, attenuated nature zone wrapped around an core of small towns and B&B accommodation.

Which means you can go for a vigorous walk through dense native forest, then arrive at a place well-supplied with tea and scones. Try doing that in the Wolfe Creek Crater National Park...

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Tourism Victoria.

Friday 15 May 2009

In the Loop

“I'll have to call back, I’m going into a tunnel!”

How often do you hear this spoken into a mobile phone when travelling through Melbourne’s City Loop? Too often, probably.

Apart from the station platforms, the underground railway loop is one of the few places in the central business district without mobile reception. It’s an oasis of calm amid the babble of communications.

There’s something attractive about underground railways. The oldest system, in London, was founded in 1863. Now a sprawling network of underground and above-ground stations, the Tube has a certain mystique. Though shaken in 2005 by terrorist bombings, it remains a distinct symbol of London, with its iconic system map and residual recorded messages of “Mind the gap” on the Northern Line.

By contrast, Melbourne’s underground railway is tiny. Though there are occasional below-ground suburban stations like the gloomy cavern at Box Hill, the city centre has just three underground stations: Melbourne Central, Parliament and Flagstaff. They’re relatively recent additions to Melbourne’s public transport, having opened in the early-to-mid 1980s.

And they took a while to arrive. The first suggestion of an underground rail link in the city was made in 1929, to resolve the congestion at Flinders Street, then one of the world’s busiest stations. A series of plans followed over the years, until finally, in 1970, the Melbourne Underground Rail Loop Authority (MURLA) was formed. After four decades of talk, work began on the loop in 1971.

Melbourne’s underground stations were cutting edge technology in the early 1980s. A quarter century later, their interior design is a quaint reminder of those times. Melbourne Central station (originally Museum station) still has red-and-white candy striped tiles, Parliament station still has steep escalators favoured by the makers of TV commercials, and Flagstaff station is still closed on Sundays.

But that’s OK. Melbourne Central station feels like a set from the late ’70s BBC science fiction series Blake’s 7, so it possesses a kind of retro cool.

Which is partly why I chose it as a location for my debut novel, a science fiction/fantasy thriller called Mind the Gap. The main character, Darius, materialises unexpectedly on a platform here, and meets the new love of his life, Viv, who works at a coffee stall along the platform (if you're interested, you can read the first three chapters of the book, including the scenes at Melbourne Central, for free at this website).

If you'd like to find out more about the City Loop, check out this informative site by Victoria's Department of Transport. In addition to the history of the loop, it contains two promotional films that were made by MURLA before and during construction.

They have a delightfully cheesy 1970s commentary and give some intriguing glimpses of how Melbourne looked back then. For one thing, you can spot the Shot Tower - nowadays completely enclosed by the Melbourne Central shopping mall - out there in the open air from about 7 minutes into the first clip.

There are also lots of shots of men wearing hats, and a bit of suspenseful music around the 5 minute mark that I associate with 1970s British end-of-the-world TV series. To tell the truth, I keep expecting the Autons from Doctor Who to pop up during the first minute or so of the film, but maybe that's just me.

But let’s hope they never extend mobile phone coverage down the Loop’s tunnels! For one thing, authors much prefer it when their characters can’t simply phone for help...

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.

Monday 4 May 2009

An Edible Institution

Museums have been a mainstay of tourism since the Victorian era, but can be dry and dull. Not so Italy's very own Museum of Pasta. Guest blogger John Richards reports on the al dente institution...

I don't think there are enough museums dedicated to food.

Yes, I hear you scoff. "What about the Museu de la Xocolata (Museum of Chocolate) in Barcelona? Or the German Bratwurst Museum in the small village of Holzhausen near Erfurt in Thuringia?"

Well yes, those are obvious. But why has Australia never opened a centre devoted to worshipping the meat pie? Or a National Institute of the Lamington?

Not only would these centres boost tourism and celebrate Aussie culture, they could be housed in buildings shaped like Enormous Things. A Big Pie, for example, or a Giant Lamington. You can see the commemorative snowdomes now, can't you?

Like coffee and pastel-coloured scooters, the food museum is something the Italians do best. I can never visit Rome without popping into the Museo Nazionale delle Paste Alimentari (National Museum of Pasta Foods).

Located near the Trevi Fountain, the Pasta Museum contains eleven rooms dedicated to the history and celebration of pasta. The museum recommends the use of their audio guide, a personal audio player that talks you through the various displays.

The spoken English on the guide is idiosyncratic, although that could be the museum's signature style – for example, this is taken from their advertising material: "The Museum will, in fact, bear witness to the significance and vocational aspects of pasta, to sum up, its potential as a precious and balanced food for the well-being and enjoyment of mankind."

Yes, it's easy to mock bad English by non-native speakers – so let's do some more of that. Visitors will learn "the history of pasta, production machinery, didactics of production technologies, nutritional information, pasta in ancient and modern art, etc. The visit is surely of great interest for every kind of schools and particularly for technical and hotel schools."

How true. As you glide through the museum, the excitable recorded voice directs your gaze to items of interest – a Neapolitan pasta tree, for example (a metal frame used for drying fresh pasta), or pictures of famous people eating pasta. Or there – in the corner to your right – a "needing trow".

I spent some time puzzling over this one before realising what my recorded voice had intended. "Oh, a trough!" I exclaimed, far too loudly, startling the Japanese students ahead. As I was leaving the room a confused woman behind me – also wearing a headset – suddenly shouted "oh, a trough!" – setting a pattern that continued for the rest of the visit.

As the museum's website tells us, "Room after room, the Museum will help the visitors discover how pasta is born from wheat and what processes are used for mixing and drying it… from rudimental machinery, such as the first stone grinders, to the modern pasta-making machinery."

The most important phrase here is possibly "room after room"… after room. After room. Even with hundreds of years of history to cover, you'll still be seeing a lot of Neapolitan kneading troughs and pictures of the young Sophia Loren.

The repetition in the exhibits is, however, enlivened by the audio guide. His unique delivery turns everyday directions into startling commands, such as "which you will now see… BEHIND YOU!", lending an unexpected Blair Witch Project flavour to the whole experience.

The final room is dedicated to art inspired by pasta. These include an illustration of a tank firing parpadelle, and a model playhouse in which pasta plays all the roles, much like Eddie Murphy in Norbit.

The museum is usually open seven days a week, although sadly its website tells us it's temporarily closed for restoration. Entry is €10, although there is a discount for children and "military personnel in uniform". Children in military uniform are presumably admitted free.

John Richards is still eating pasta, though he's stopped looking for secret meanings in the patterns formed by alphabet spaghetti. His musings on life and culture can be found at his blog, The Outland Institute.