Friday 31 January 2020

The Chinese Settlers of Ararat

Just before Christmas, Narrelle and I headed to Dunkeld to enjoy a stay at the Royal Mail Hotel. To return to Melbourne, we caught a V/Line bus first to Ararat.

We had a few hours to kill before the afternoon train back to Melbourne, so we walked around to the Gum San Chinese Heritage Centre (pictured above).

Like the Golden Dragon Museum in Bendigo and the Chinese Museum in Melbourne, the Gum San tells the story of Chinese migrants who sailed to Australia to join the 1850s gold rush.

But in Ararat that story comes with an interesting twist, because Chinese men landing at Melbourne were charged a head tax of £10 from 1855 (a hefty amount back then).

As a result, prospective Chinese gold miners began landing instead in South Australia and walking hundreds of kilometres to the diggings in Victoria.

In the case of Ararat, a group of these marching Chinese migrants were camped in the area on their way to the goldfields, and by luck discovered a gold lead.

Though they tried to keep it quiet, word spread and soon the area was crowded with diggers, giving birth to the Ararat township.

Thus, Ararat is said to be the only town in Australia to be founded by the Chinese - and this well-organised museum tells their story, from the gold rush days onwards.

It's a good reminder that Victoria was multicultural from its very earliest days as a British colony, as its gold rush era drew a huge, diverse crowd of prospectors from around the world, bringing their cultures with them.

It's a tradition that lives on... even in a place as far from the 'big smoke' as Ararat.

The Gum San Heritage Centre is at 31 Lambert St, Ararat, Victoria, Australia. Open daily 11am-4pm, adult entry $12. See its website for more details.

Friday 24 January 2020

Land Ho! By Ferry from Tasmania to Melbourne

On this trip I was hosted by Tourism Tasmania and MONA FOMA.

I've visited Tasmania many times over the years - eight times, in fact - and yet I'd never travelled to or from the island state by sea rather than air.

It was time to fix that.

On the outward leg of my latest visit, to Launceston for the MONA FOMA arts festival, I flew. It's a quick flight from Melbourne, just 45 minutes in the air, but subject to all the usual hassles of reaching the airport, being tested for explosives for the 4,357th time at security, and being squeezed into cattle-truck conditions on the plane itself.

On the way back, however, I was boarding this entirely different vessel - Spirit of Tasmania I, one of a duo of big car ferries that sail between Devonport, Tasmania and Melbourne, Victoria each night:

Entering via the rear loading area of the ship, foot passengers head up escalators to Deck 7:

As you can see from the sign, this is the social hub of the vessel, with most of the dining and entertainment options, though there additional bars and kids' areas on Decks 9 and 10. On Deck 7 there's a reading room (oddly without books), a bar, two cinema screens, a gaming lounge, tourist info, a shop with souvenirs and sandwiches, and a restaurant which serves a fairly unexciting buffet meal:

Heading upward via the blue lift (there are also colour-coded stairwells to aid orientation), I walked all the way toward the bow to find my cabin:

Most of the sleeping accommodation is on Deck 8. There's a variety of options, including reclining chairs, berths in shared cabins along the lines of a hostel dorm, and private cabins for two to four people. A lot of family groups use the Spirit, taking their cars with them, so these multi-person cabins are popular.

(As an aside, a couple of interstate travellers I met in Launceston pointed out another advantage of travelling to Tasmania with your own car - you can load it up with great Tassie food and cases of local wine! Try doing that on a Boeing 737.)

I, however, had scored the poshest option, a Deluxe Cabin. Located right at the front of Deck 8, on the starboard corner, it was basically a hotel room with queen-size bed, chairs, TV, bar fridge and bathroom. Very comfortable indeed:

After dropping my backpack in my cabin I strolled around the ship, stepping out to have a look at Bass Strait after we left Tasmania:

After dinner I turned in and had a reasonably good sleep. Bass Strait is notorious for its unpredictably rough waters, but luckily this was a calm night. Once or twice I was woken by a loud clanging noise, which I suspect was a high wave breaking against the bow, but otherwise it was peaceful, though always with a slight sense of swaying movement.

The only problem about the crossing is the ungodly hour it arrives at Port Melbourne: 6am. I set my alarm for 5am so I could have a shower and repack my backpack. Then I headed up to Deck 10 to avail myself of the services of the barista at work there, then took my coffee outside Deck 8 to see the view:

Utterly beautiful. And with the terminus of the number 109 tram just 400 metres away, I was soon offboard and on my way home to Melbourne's city centre. A great experience, with vastly more comfort and character than an equivalent flight.

For more information and to make bookings, visit the Spirit of Tasmania website.

Saturday 18 January 2020

Kipli Paywuta Lumi: Into the Tasmanian Bush with MONA FOMA

On this trip I’m being hosted by Tourism Tasmania and MONA FOMA.

I’m in Launceston, Tasmania, for a few days, taking part in the MONA FOMA festival and enjoying various arts and food highlights of the city and the region.

Last night I had one of the more interesting cultural experiences I’d ever experienced, taking part in the Kipli Paywuta Lumi event.

A celebration of the culture of Tasmania’s Aboriginal people - known as Palawa - it saw us first being transported in a bus up to the heights of the forest outside Launceston. Dropped off in a car park on the edge of the bush, we were asked to walk quietly through the trees, following the path marked by ochre-painted trunks.

It took about fifteen minutes up and down slopes to reach our destination. I suppose the point of walking in silence was to let the bush calm us down, to help us make the transition from city buzz to nature’s slower rhythms.

On arrival at the campsite we saw this - a ‘bush hut’ constructed in the tradition once used by the local Indigenous people, though this version was larger than those and employed modern materials.

Sitting within on wallaby and possum skins, we were given a Welcome to Country in the Palawa language, which has been undergoing a revival in recent years. With the lowering sun shining onto the outside of the hut, it was an atmospheric setting for the welcome.  

We moved to a nearby campfire where an interesting array of traditional foodstuffs was cooking - possum, muttonbird and wallaby among them. We were served oysters here as we heard more about the project, and from shells drank beverages flavoured with native herbs such as pepperberry.

Back in the tent, our food was served on bark onto beds of ferns, and we ate in the traditional way - using our fingers! First up was fish (pinungana in the local language), flathead in this case. Very tasty, with a hint of lemon from the spices used.

I’ll spare you the photos of what the fish and other food looked like when we had finished with it! It was a great experience sharing food this way; among our groups of five or six, it promoted discussion and the hut was soon filled with sociable talk. The event had promised “a moment of mid-festival calm”, and it delivered. 

As the event was delivered by Palawa people in partnership with others, and drew deeply on Tasmanian Aboriginal traditions, it helped keep that culture alive and reinterpreted for the present day. I was very pleased to be a part of it - at school as a kid I was told that Tasmania’s Indigenous people had died out, and I couldn’t be more delighted to experience the living contradiction of that lie.

Dropped back at the Festival Hub in Launceston, I stepped inside and partook of another drink involving Tasmanian native ingredients - proof that MONA FOMA can embrace all traditions.

The Kipli Paywuta Lumi event is sold out, but you can visit the campsite during the day; and find out more about this and other events at the MONA FOMA website  MONA FOMA continues to Monday 20 January 2020.

Friday 10 January 2020

Review: Basquiat/Haring, Melbourne, Australia

I was hosted to this exhibition by the National Gallery of Victoria.

Image courtesy of the NGV

Melbourne's premier art gallery, the National Gallery of Victoria, has had some interesting exhibition mash-ups in recent years. From Warhol & Weiwei to Escher & Nendo, the NGV's curators have had fun contrasting different styles, techniques and eras.

Their latest big two-for-one exhibition, Basquiat/Haring: Crossing Lines is less about contrasting origins, since Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring were friends and both arose from the street art scene of 1980s New York.

Image courtesy of the NGV

Their artistic styles, however, couldn't be more different. Basquiat was best known for his "primitivist" works, with raw lines and colours, often depicting black figures and painted on planks, doors, or canvas stretched across poles.

Haring's art ran more to tight cartoon-like frames featuring humanoid figures, interacting with vibrant backgrounds that commented on issues in the world around them.

Image courtesy of the NGV

The exhibition is roughly chronological - the visitor enters through a faux-alley on which is projected film of Haring being arrested in the NYC subway after drawing on a blank advertising space, then rolls through the 1980s as both artists grow in stature, style and technique.

Image courtesy of the NGV

Other than a darkened room filled with Day-Glo works once exhibited at a New York gallery, there's not much additional tinkering with the exhibition space - and that's all to the good. The artists' work is strong enough to speak for itself, and the contrasts and juxtapositions as you glance around the rooms are stimulating.

It's perhaps Haring's work that is easiest to relate to in 2020, because (as the NGV's wall text points out), it seems a precursor to the emojis we're so familiar with now.

Image courtesy of the NGV
I was fascinated by a mock Egyptian sarcophagus on which Haring had drawn dozens of figures - as the text points out, hieroglyphs attracted him in their ability to summarise an object in the minimum of lines.

Having said that, Basquiat's work has the edge in my eyes. I love its bold colours, its raw lines, the feeling of power shrouded in mystery that's exuded by the crowned figures he created. I could look at his larger works for hours, puzzling them out.

Neither artist is still with us - Basquiat died in 1988, Haring in 1990 - but their work lives boldly on.

Basquiat/Haring: Crossing Lines continues to 13 April 2020, at NGV International, 180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne, Australia. Tickets $30 for adults, $25 concession. Make bookings here.

Friday 3 January 2020

Dining in Dunkeld

On this trip I was hosted by the Royal Mail Hotel, though I paid for my own transport.

On the Friday before Christmas, Narrelle and I journeyed out to Dunkeld, a small town west of Melbourne at the southern tip of Grampians National Park.

I was there to review the Royal Mail Hotel, which has recently renovated its rooms... and in our own, a welcome gin & tonic awaited, the mint garnish to be plucked by us from a plant on the balcony:

(That accommodation review will appear in due course in Traveller.)

The town is pleasant enough; though home to only 600 or so people, it has a number of interesting heritage buildings, explained via recently installed signage:

And in the Memorial Park on the main street I found this plaque. Why have I never heard before about the Australian submarine at Gallipoli?

The supreme highlight of our trip, however, was food. The Royal Mail is famous for its restaurants, particularly the fine-dining Wickens. On the Saturday afternoon we joined the regular tour of the hotel's kitchen garden, a sprawling delight on the edge of town, guided by head chef Robin Wickens himself:

Then, at 6.30pm, we sat down at Wickens for a spectacular four-hour meal - eight courses (really 13 with the added amuse-bouches and palate cleansers), all using the produce we'd inspected and sampled earlier in the day.

We'd asked for our meal to be pescatarian, ie fish and vegetables, so this is the menu the Wickens team devised and served to us:

Could it be as impressive in reality as it seemed on paper? It could. what followed was a fascinating cascade of small dishes, expertly crafted and matched with wines. The flavours and textures were amazing; consumed to a view of native trees and Mount Sturgeon, it was by far our most memorable dining experience of 2019.

Here are some of the dishes we were served (see if you can match them to the menu, they're presented in order of serving):

And the view from here...

... was of this:

A perfect evening, much recommended.

Wickens is at the Royal Mail Hotel, 98 Parker St, Dunkeld, Victoria, Australia. Visit its website for more details.