Friday 27 November 2009

Look Upon This Picture, And On This...

When is a famous historic building not a famous historic building? When it's a scale model, of course.

In last week's Canberra post I talked about our visit to Cockington Green Gardens, a tourist attraction filled with miniature replicas of English village settings. However, it also has an international section.

Rather than being filled with humble village miniatures, it's mostly home to replicas of grand historic buildings from around the globe, funded by the relevant national embassy or cultural body.

As I walked around, I realised I'd been to several of the models' originals. There's nothing more fun than playing the "Been there!" game, usually while watching the TV. You know how it goes - an image comes on the screen of the Pyramids, for example, or Edinburgh Castle, and you shout out "Been there!".

You don't know that game? Oh well, we play it here, anyway.

Here are my "Been there!" moments from Cockington Green:

1. Borobudur, Indonesia. On my first trip overseas in 1981, I visited this beautiful 9th century Buddhist monument, containing over 500 Buddha statues within bell-shaped stone structures. Here's my pic from 1981:

... and here's Cockington Green's model:

2. Karlštejn Castle, Czech Republic. This Gothic castle outside Prague was constructed in the 14th century for the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia, Charles IV. We snapped this shot on a Central European trip in 1993...

And here's the replica at Cockington Green:

3. Palmyra, Syria. Palmyra was a Roman-era city, now a set of ruins in the Syrian desert. We visited it in 1994, on a holiday from our teaching jobs in Egypt. Here's a pic we took then...

... and here's the model at Cockington Green:

4. Petra, Jordan. The beautiful "rose-red city half as old as time", carved from the rock by the Nabatean civilisation around 100 BCE. Here's our 1994 photo...

... and Cockington Green's version:

5. Trakai, Lithuania. Finally, I visited Trakai in 2008 while taking a side-trip from a Lonely Planet assignment. This place really does look like it's been plucked from Disneyland, as it's a perfect fairy tale castle in the middle of a lake. Here's my shot...

... and here's Cockington Green's model. Hard to pick the fake, huh?

Sunday 22 November 2009

Canberra: Worth Going to See?

"Worth seeing? Yes; but not worth going to see."

The words of 18th century wordsmith Samuel Johnson passed through my mind yesterday as I visited Gold Creek Village in the northern suburbs of Canberra. Johnson was talking about the Giant's Causeway in Ireland, a geological feature; while Gold Creek Village is about as artificial as you can get.

It's basically a tourist precinct containing several attractions and some fairly daggy shops. There are a couple of historic buildings, but otherwise the complex looks like it dropped in from about 1987.

You can tell I'm not a fan of attractions that seem to exist largely to give people something to do on a quiet Sunday - it doesn't speak well of the vibrancy of the city as a whole.

However... if you've already ticked off the big attractions in the national capital - the National Gallery, the National Museum, the National Bonsai Collection (not kidding) - then you could do worse than spend half a day visiting Gold Creek. Take a postmodern sense of irony with you, and you'll enjoy it even more.

A prehistoric display

Our first stop was the National Dinosaur Museum, a big barn of a building with a single floor of exhibits and a little shop below. The first thing you notice about the place is that it's not your modern hands-on hyper-interactive kind of facility. In fact it's a classic old-fashioned museum with lots of displays in glass cabinets, loads of text, and a number of big dinosaur replicas.

Having said that, once you knuckle down and start reading the text, it's a pretty interesting place. Rather than starting from the age of the dinosaurs, the chronological displays start from the dawn of time and proceed past the dinosaur extinction to the present day. There's a quirky little section on cryptozoology and claimed sightings of modern-day sabre tooth tigers near the end that makes a neat follow-up to all the big picture stuff.

The museum does have a small amount of hands-on options, eg fossils you can touch. The text is well written and accessible, and there's a wealth of info about the Australian aspect of each prehistoric age. Though you have to chuckle a little at quotes such as "By the end of the Carboniferous [era], Canberra... has become covered by the southern ice cap." And I thought the city was only founded in 1927.

The bottom line re the National Dinosaur Museum? Minimal bells and whistles but good content... will work best for those already interested in dinosaurs.

Little Englanders

A short walk took us to Cockington Green. It's hard to know what to make of this place on first glance... replica English village buildings in a garden setting in Australia's national capital screams "cultural cringe" when you first hear of it.

Interestingly though, the Green does display some departure from the traditional "Isn't it lovely" approach. The miniature buildings, mostly at 1/12 scale, are based on structures from different places in Old Blighty. Though the buildings are generally olde worlde types, the model people and vehicles around them are modern, with late-model cars parked next to Tudor cottages.

The modern elements added a touch of extra interest to our stroll through the grounds, including an electric train snaking through the countryside, and a streaker at a soccer match. It was about that this point that our senses of humour kicked in, and we started to speculate where the secret druids were, dragging sacrifices into the woods by night.

And then we rounded the corner to see a group of model policeman bending over a model body lying in greenery just near a clump of bushes. And further on we found the model Stonehenge, with a bunch of suspicious robed figures standing in the middle. Narrelle thought they looked like monks, but I thought they were druids. Up to no good.

And so it went, with us walking through the beautifully tended gardens past canal boats and castles, noticing little jokes (like the pervy golfer) or possibly imagining them (like the pervy golfer).

And then to the international section, full of replicas full of spectacular foreign buildings, sponsored by various embassies in Canberra (planning for a full-blown Australian section is also underway). Not as much scope there for humour, but plenty for the "Been There" game.

But that's a story for another day...

Next Week: The "Been There" Game!

Friday 13 November 2009

South Australia: Ready for its Close-up, Mr DeMille

A few weeks ago when I was at the cinema waiting for arthouse flick An Education to start, I caught the trailer for the new Scott Hicks/Clive Owen drama The Boys are Back.

It was one of those annoying trailers that feel like the five minute "marketer's cut", showing you a linear summary of the entire movie, but it did look good from a cinematographic point of view.

Turns out that despite its British star, the The Boys are Back was filmed in South Australia. Locations are mostly along the attractive Fleurieu Peninsula south of Adelaide, with scenes shot at places such as Aldinga Beach and Myponga Beach.

There are also scenes at Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills, and at Dog Ridge Wines in the McLaren Vale wine region. City scenes take place in Adelaide, shot in the offices of The Advertiser newspaper, the Majestic Roof Garden Hotel, and at Gouger Street bar Sangria.

Interestingly, the South Australian Tourism Commission is one of the partners backing the film, and is using it as the basis of an international tourism promotion. It's not that long since Tourism Australia bankrolled a similar campaign in conjunction with Baz Luhrmann's Australia, producing mixed results, so it'll be interesting to see how well this one does in drawing visitors to SA.

Although I've been to South Australia a few times, I've never visited or written about any movie locations there. However, there have been stacks of films shot in South Australia over the years, sometimes standing in for other places.

Here are five of the more prominent:

Picnic at Hanging Rock
(1975): Though most of the movie was filmed at the actual rock, the girls' school, Appleyard Hall, is in fact Martindale Hall in South Australia.

Storm Boy (1976): A popular family film when I was a kid, this movie featured a boy and his pelican in the coastal Coorong region.

Breaker Morant (1980): An array of South Australian locations stood in convincingly for South Africa in this courtroom drama taking place during the Boer War.

Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002): A movie with a Western Australian location which was mostly shot in SA, in diverse places from Lake Torrens to the Gibson Desert.

Wolf Creek (2005): Successful horror flick almost entirely filmed in the South Australian outback, though it includes some aerial shots of the actual Wolfe Creek crater in WA.

It's a bit too early to predict how The Boys are Back will fare in cinemas, as it's only just opened in Australia, but so far the reaction at IMDb seems good. And if it turns out to not be your cup of tea, you can at least soothe yourself by watching the pretty locations. Or if you're from South Australia, by playing the "Now where is that?" game.

COMPETITION: Courtesy of film distributor Hopscotch Films, I have ten double passes to give away to the Australian season of The Boys are Back. To score a double pass, send an email to with the following info:

- Your full name and town/suburb;
- Your postal address for me to mail the pass to;
- A short paragraph about a movie location you've visited anywhere in the world and what it was like; or a movie location you'd like to visit and why.

The first ten complete entries will gain a double pass. Only entries with the above info will be eligible, and by entering you grant me the right to use the material for free, perpetually and non-exclusively, in a future blog post about travel to movie locations (but you will be credited!).

Unfortunately entry is only open to Australian residents - sorry about that. But if you'd like to send in a paragraph about your movie location experiences to be used in a future post anyway, please do.

That's it! The competition ends at midnight on Sunday 22 November, so enter now!

Sunday 8 November 2009

Sovereign Hill: New Gold Mountain Remixed

Lola Montez and I have a history. In 1855 she scandalised Victoria’s polite society by performing her saucy spider dance across the colony.

Then in 2005, I wrote an article for The Age (which was dismissive of Montez the first time round) to commemorate the 150th anniversary of her all-conquering tour.

And finally, we met in passing today on the streets of Sovereign Hill, though the former mistress of the King of Bavaria was more concerned with trading blows with newspaper editor Henry Seekamp, who’d dared to imply that the dancer possessed uncertain morals.

It was, of course, a historical reenactment with a slight edit - Montez and Seekamp did test out horsewhips on each other in real life, but in the confines of the United States Hotel. I, coincidentally, am writing this at the long timber bar of the rebuilt United States Hotel, on the main street of this replica town, which recreates the lively and chaotic gold rush era of 1850s Ballarat.

Gold rush town

Got all that? Good. So while the folk band in the corner strikes up another tune and the barmaid pours another ale, let me give you my thoughts on the place.

The first time I came here, I’d expected a cheesy antipodean Disneyland, a kind of “Gold Rush World” complete with corporate branding and actors dressed in giant fibreglass heads resembling those of bearded, gap-toothed Victorian-era gold miners.

The reality was, to my surprise, quite different. There’s something about Sovereign Hill that’s both charming and very relaxing. It’s partly because it really does resemble a small country town - the inhabitants may be in fancy dress, but there are enough streets lined with dusty timber buildings and ragged miners’ tents that it has the right “feel”.

On top of that, it’s full of businesses selling items typical of the era - clothing, toiletries, candles, sweets - many of which are made here. As you wander away from the busy main street, there are more items of interest scattered through the side streets - market gardens, animals, a wheelwright’s factory - which you can often wander through on your lonesome.

Panning for gold

There are also activities to undertake, such as panning for gold at the diggings area below the main street. Here, crouching visitors agitate wide metal pans vigorously in the hope of retrieving a few flecks of gold. There is certainly gold present, by the way, as the management has thoughtfully salted the stream with a modest amount beforehand.

Watching the gold panners is theatre in itself; I sat and observed a tour group from China getting down and dirty at the stream, having a thoroughly good time sloshing the pans in the hope of scoring a speck of the fabled metal.

There were several Chinese tour groups here today, living proof of the reported big increase in Chinese arrivals at Melbourne Airport. And I noticed something I’d never seen before at Sovereign Hill - their Mandarin-speaking guides were themselves dressed in Chinese garb of the 19th century, featuring silk shirts and broad straw hats.

Chinese connection

And then the penny dropped - Sovereign Hill isn’t just another Australian peculiarity on the itineraries of Chinese tourists, like kangaroos and penguin watching. There’s a strong Chinese story here on the goldfields, via the thousands of Chinese miners who came to “New Gold Mountain”, as they named the Victorian goldfields, to try their luck on the diggings.

With that in mind, I had a look through Sovereign Hill's Chinese Camp, a recreation of the Chinese miners’ homes and lives in 1850s Victoria. To my surprise, the small temple contains an impressive audiovisual presentation, via suspended widescreen TVs placed strategically within (haven’t flatscreen TVs been a godsend to museum curators everywhere?).

The story of the Chinese miners is an intriguing element of the multi-ethnic Victoria of those days. It’s not a story, frankly, that reflects well on the European population, who did much to make the Chinese feel unwelcome; but seeing the crowds of newly prosperous Chinese tourists now visiting Sovereign Hill and panning for gold, there’s a sense that amends have been made.

Disclosure time... on this trip I travelled courtesy of V/Line's daily Goldrush Special train and Sovereign Hill. But I paid for all the sippin’ whisky myself (and soon hope to have my sight back). For accommodation, see my 2007 review of Sovereign Hill Lodge.

Also check out the Sovereign Hill post and Eureka Centre post of my friend and blogger Walter Lim, who accompanied us on this trip.

Monday 2 November 2009

Barbecue at Hanging Rock

Partaking in a barbecue at Hanging Rock, was I in any danger of vanishing into the ether like those poor schoolgirls in Peter Weir's classic film? Or would I be safe as long as I avoided pan pipe music, and didn't wear Victorian petticoats?

With all the exotic overseas travel I do, it's easy to overlook the attractions of domestic travel.

Even easier, perhaps, to overlook what I think of as ultra-domestic travel, ie a short trip only an hour or two away from one's home. The weekend break in a cottage somewhere near wineries is glamorous enough, but in a low-key, relaxed sort of way.

Narrelle and I have needed a holiday for a while - she's been flitting between contract jobs that don't allow for leave days, and I've been busy taking notes, photos and interviews while on the road.

The answer last weekend was to rent a place called Bella Loft in Woodend, an hour or so's train ride northwest of Melbourne. Comfortably lodged in this lace-free, non-cottagey apartment just behind the High Street shops, we set about the weekend.

Did I explore magnificent art galleries, pore over museum collections, wield exotic languages or hike to mountaintops? No. But here's what I modestly achieved:

Read a book. Though not all of it (yet). I've just switched to an iPhone but there's an e-book I paid for on the old Palm which can't be switched to the new device. So I slaved away dutifully on Revelation Space by British science fiction author Alastair Reynolds, and found it was rather good. Hard to describe; absorbing to read.

Read some comic books. The monthly DC title Justice Society of America, about a team which comprises both the surviving 1940s superheroes and present-day heroes inspired by their legends, is the one I always read first after collecting a pile of comics from Minotaur in Melbourne. Devoured issues 29-31 in which Obsidian is transformed, Mr Terrific is stabbed, and we're introduced to a new Doctor Fate. All good stuff.

Ate a sticky date pudding. I had thought this dessert to be lost back in the 1990s, but here it was on the menu of Zarby's, where we had dinner on Saturday night. Narrelle had a crème brûlée, another retro touch. Both were excellent. Zarby's had that distinctive vibe of country restaurants in popular treechange commuter towns - a broad enough menu for family groups and locals, and classy decor and high-end choices for foodie city types. Oh, and early arrivals and departures: the place was near-full when we arrived at 7.30pm, and almost empty by 9pm.

Drank a boutique beer. Specifically The Hopinator, a product of the Holgate Brewhouse in the old Keatings Hotel in the middle of town. As the name suggests, it's insanely full of hops and very bitter - I suggested Narrelle take a sip just so I could see the look on her face (she's not a "bitter" sort of person). She had a Temptress, a porter beer brewed with a dash of cocoa.

Saw a kangaroo. We were sitting at a barbecue table beneath Hanging Rock, sampling various meat products we'd just charred, when I looked up to see a kangaroo casually hopping past toward the lawn below the cafe. I suspect it's a tame roo that hangs around cadging scraps from visitors, but it seemed a positive omen - there would be no malign mystic powers wreaking havoc here today (though admittedly I couldn't get any reception on my mobile phone).

Drank bubbly. On a hilltop just south of Woodend, along a gravel road on the slopes of Mount Macedon, is the the Mt Macedon Winery. The cellar door's verandah is a very ambient place to sit on a warm Sunday afternoon, looking out over the spreading view of the Black Forest below, and sipping a little of the winery's Brut Cuvée. And so we did.

I can't say our achievements over the weekend set new benchmarks for daredevil travellers everywhere; but it was just the break we needed. Sometimes there's no place like somewhere other than home.

Disclosure time... on this trip I received complimentary accommodation at Bella Loft, Woodend.