Of Koalas, Kangaroos and Penguins


I expected to see lots of them when we set foot on Australian soil. Kangaroos, kangaroos and more kangaroos. Maybe not in Melbourne, but surely along the Great Ocean Road and other parts of undeveloped Victoria. “Kangaroo crossing” signs along the roadways didn’t lessen the expectation. Yet, we never saw a single one.

I should have realized that the no-show isn’t really all that unusual. After all, I can count on less than one finger the number of times I’ve seen Bigfoot here in the Pacific Northwest. Humans have a way of scaring off wildlife. If we don’t spook them, we take away their habitats. Roos are not likely to be waving at us as we roar by in our automobiles and trucks, in my mind the single worst noise polluters in any urban setting, let alone a natural one. And, regarding those signs, the last thing I wanted to happen was striking a kangaroo, risking both its life and mine, never mind forking over a fortune to the car rental agency since I opted out of collision and damage insurance.

Still, if we had wanted to, we could have gone down to the Anglesea golf course to see the grey kangaroos cavorting there, a short drive from Torquay where we were staying. We just couldn’t find the time, it seems.

Grey kangaroos at Anglesea Golf Club (image from visitmelbourneblog.com)

Koalas, on the other hand, are impossible to find in the wild. Could we catch a glimpse of a wombat, echidna, Tasmanian devil or dingo? Not likely.

So, the next best thing was to see koalas in a controlled habitat (a.k.a., captivity) on a half-day bus tour from Melbourne to Phillip Island. The tour included a stopover at the Koala Conservation Centre. My daughter had her picture taken cuddling a koala at the Sydney Zoo two years ago, so my wife was hoping to do the same here. Aside from the possibility of being peed on or clawed, Victoria does not allow humans to handle koalas. We had to be content with seeing them in the manna gum trees from the boardwalk. At first, it was discouraging because the critters were high up in the canopy. All we could see were furry balls—their bottoms, their faces if they were turned just right. Further along the path, they were much closer, enough to utter our “awws” and take pictures. The irony is that man’s intervention was required to see them.

Koala as seen through my camera’s telephoto lens

Phillip Island is a major tourist attraction that features little penguins, the smallest of the world’s seventeen penguin species, endemic to Australia and New Zealand. Aussies refer to them as fairy penguins, a reference to their diminutive size, no more than a foot tall. Kiwis call them blue penguins for their blue and white feathery coat. The “penguin parade” happens right after dusk when the penguins return to their nests after spending the day foraging at sea. Their homes are no more than burrows in the ground. Grandstands built right on the beach let visitors watch them waddle by, as close as a few feet from the boardwalk. Photography is no longer allowed. The inimitable Richard Attenborough shows us instead.

Fortunately, these penguins don’t seem particularly perturbed by human presence, but they are much more wary of predators introduced by Europeans, particularly foxes that can feast on as many as 40 chicks in a day. Tally ho!

As we approached the reserve before the program as well as while we waited in the grandstand for the penguins to come ashore, we finally caught glimpses of wallabies, which have naturalized in this area, hopping along the tussock and beach. So, I might’ve been a little disingenuous when at first I said that we saw no roos, technically speaking.

wallaby

If, at some point in our travels, we decide to trek into the Australian bush, I’d wager that our chances would be good at spotting indigenous marsupials. But, not so much in the comfort and isolation of the Grayline bus to Phillip Island with on-board wi-fi so we can watch YouTube videos of them on our tablets, smart phones and laptops. Isn’t it grand to be out in nature?

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Cathedral of Commerce and the Gothic Bank (Melbourne, VIC)


It’s seems rather odd when walking along Collins Street, Melbourne’s swanky avenue lined with boutique shops, restaurants, historic churches, some of Australia’s tallest buildings and its banking center. For such a commercial and financial avenue, one wouldn’t expect to find the city’s best examples of Victorian-era architecture. It seems that the 19th-century captains of finance were in the habit of erecting and working in grand, ornate Gothic Revival buildings. There seems to have been no expense spared.

Included among these are the former English, Scottish and Australian (ES&A) Bank building and the former Stock Exchange. Though both are classified as Neo-Gothic, one is restrained and stately, the other almost flamboyant, perfectly at home along the canals of Venice. They are an odd couple. At the time of their construction, both buildings were not internally connected. That didn’t happen until 1922 when the conjoined structures became known together as the Gothic Bank.

While walking in the rain along Collins Street, we came across the Gothic Bank at Queen Street. Not inclined to admire the exteriors in this weather, we went inside to see the famed interior designs. The space previously occupied by ES&A Bank is now an ANZ branch, snug up against and connected to its imposing (and decidedly post-modern, sky-scraping) World Headquarters.

Walking into the bank lobby was quite a surprise. I’d never seen a bank interior like this one. It has to be one of the most ornate banking chambers in the world. The columns, capitals, arches and ceiling are richly detailed and gilded, like entering a Venetian palace.

From there, we made our way to the Stock Exchange building through doors along the lobby’s north wall. The former trading floor is now called the ‘Cathedral Room’ for obvious reasons. In fact, from Day One, the exchange became known as the Cathedral of Commerce, a reference to its clearly Gothic architectural elements: granite columns mounted by decorated capitals, soaring pointed arches and elaborate groin design. Unlike the adjoining bank interior, the off-white and gray colors are more suited to an ecclesiastical setting except that this hall was witness to financial trading in days past.

cathedral room

ANZ World Headquarters is situated next door and north of the ES&A building. The indoor passageway wouldn’t be noteworthy if it weren’t for the glass atria in between that are bordered by colorful post-modern columns. Those in the south atrium are made of smooth, blue-green marble topped by modern telescoping capitals. The north atrium reaches higher into a soaring space that repeats the column design of its southern neighbor on the bottom but adds fluted, light turquoise columns on top, its color chosen presumably so as not to appear overbearing. The effect is startling and imaginative. The atrium has the appearance of a courtyard, on one side lined with Gothic-inspired arched windows overlooking it.

anz whq atrium

We had earlier in the day visited the State Library of Victoria whose reading room is topped by a massive dome modeled after the ones in the U.S. Library of Congress and the British Museum.

State Library of Victoria's reading room dome

State Library of Victoria’s reading room dome

Melbourne has many architectural wonders, thanks to preservationists who saw the value of retaining heritage buildings. We only saw a small fraction. If your interest turns occasionally to architecture, you’d do yourself a favor by spending time among Melbourne’s many masterpieces.

Great Ocean Road and Victoria’s Coast


It isn’t a particularly casual drive along the Great Ocean Road, considered one of the great drives of the world. When you’re the driver, the curves and hairpin turns are enough to turn your hair gray and prevent you from gazing at the spectacular scenery offshore. The journey is even more suspenseful when you’re accustomed to driving on the right side of the road, as we Americans are. Victoria’s Great Ocean Road is the equivalent of our Highway 1 in California through Big Sur, though the American drive is half the length.

The most popular attraction are the Twelve Apostles, towering sandstone sea stacks toward the western end of the road. Geological peculiarities are normally of great interest to me, but this time my wife and I both decided against seeing these admittedly fascinating rock pillars. The biggest reason, and one which we’ve confronted many times in the kind of traveling we like to do, is that we were stationed for three nights in one place in Torquay at the other (east) end of the Ocean Road. The general estimate for driving to the Apostles is 3 ½ to 4 hours from Torquay, making the round trip an all-day affair with time to do little else. Staying at one place has its limitations.

With that decision out of the way, we just went a short way down to Lorne for lunch and made several stops along the way to soak in the views. This coast has some of the world’s best surfing, the most famous spot being Bells Beach, host of the Rip Curl Pro event.

ocean road-2

ocean road

ocean road cliff

Australia is perceived as being an arid land, the Outback an imprecise term for the landscape and sparse population encountered there. The verdant areas are mostly confined to the coastal areas, which is where ninety percent of Australians live. It may come as a surprise that there are rain forests in Australia. The Otway Ranges are such places, hugging the Great Ocean Road along its eastern edge. One way to get there from Torquay is through Lorne along the Great Ocean Road, but the faster way is inland via the Princes Highway that has some interesting small towns along the way, including Birregurra where we stopped to pick up a sandwich.

Almost as soon as we headed south from Colac toward the mountains, the scenery visibly began to change from a flat, almost featureless terrain, to one of rolling hills and pastureland, with great stands of gum trees. It also became increasingly green. When we reached the upper elevations, the sclerophyllic forest became denser, with very big and tall trees and heavy fern understories. Here, the Otway Fly promised excitement with ziplining and the world’s longest and highest treetop walk. The walk encompasses 600m (1968ft) of steel walkway supported high into the canopies of the tall mountain ash, blackwood and myrtle beech trees, towering above tree ferns. The footpaths are grates that can be psychologically discomfiting when looking straight down, suspended 30m (100ft) above the ground. Higher yet is the Spiral Stair whose top is 45m (148ft). For an eerier experience, we went to the end of one walkway that is cantilevered over the forest floor and thus susceptible to flexion when winds come through the forest. In fact, it was gently yawing as we were standing at its end.

In the opposite direction from Torquay is the Bellarine Peninsula where attractions are historic rather than natural. At the tip is Queenscliff, an old fishing village and home to several Victorian-style hotels. The GPS route, which claimed a faster drive time than taking the B100 and B110, involved so many small sections of less than 10km each that we lost count, interrupted by many multi-lane roundabouts so common in Australia and New Zealand. Queenscliff’s CBD extends no more than three blocks, but there are several historic buildings, including a restored post office and the Victorian Vue Grand Hotel. Tourism hasn’t seemed to affect its quaint, small town atmosphere.

Queenscliff also has a ferry terminal. In 40 minutes, a ferry sails to Sorrento, a town of well-heeled residents and with a quaint commercial district. Along the way, bottlenose dolphins swam alongside the boat, both going and returning. The view toward Port Phillip from the walk up the hill along well-kept cottages is quite spectacular. Shops, restaurants and galleries line Ocean Beach Road, the main thoroughfare through Sorrento. There are no finer displays of produce than at Scicluna’s Real Food Merchants. We happened upon impressive driftwood animal sculptures at Happy Days Sorrento (155 Ocean Beach Road), a funky gallery and quirky housewares store. Just Fine Food (23 Ocean Beach Road) serves what many regard as Australia’s finest version of vanilla slice, known in France as mille-feuilles, a custardy dessert sandwiched between two layers of flaky crusts with plum jam and powdered sugar. It is barely sweet, a good thing, but otherwise didn’t appeal to us as much as fans of creamy desserts.

The Bellarine Peninsula gets short shrift from tourists who would rather enjoy the splendors of the Great Ocean Road, but it’s a nice alternative to gazing at natural wonders.

Degraves Street: Melbourne’s Café Culture


We were getting weary of the “big breakfast,” as Aussies and Kiwis refer to their eggs, bacon, sausage, roasted tomato, sautéed mushrooms and hash browns combination. There’s nothing wrong with it; it’s just that we wanted variety. Our hotel offered a buffet; components of the big brekkie were the extent of the savory offerings. We were going to ask the front desk later for recommendations on other places to eat.

Then, serendipity struck.

As we were walking toward the Tourist Information Office, we came upon Degraves Street. It really is an alley, easy to ignore when walking past. But, my wife and I both happened to look down the lane and noticed a café and what appeared to be big umbrellas lined up down the center with tables and chairs underneath. Curious, we went in further and found to our amazement that the alley was lined with tiny European-style cafes, all open toward the alley and having at least a few tables outside for al fresco dining. Offering breakfast were restaurant after restaurant, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, bakeries. And, it doesn’t stop at Degraves, which is only one block long, but continues in other alleyways and arcades, spread through the CBD. They are so popular now that they are the subject of a separate self-guided walking tour, as we later found out at the information center. Melbournians are proud of their café culture.

The quality of the meals has been quite good. We couldn’t believe our fortune. It is possible to have all your meals in these cafes for an entire week and still not run out of options. And only a half block from our hotel, the Citigate Melbourne, to boot.

At Degraves Espresso, located near the Degraves Street entrance, we drew from their largely Spanish menu for breakfast one morning. Green Eggs was a scramble of basil, onion and feta, served on a slice of toasted sourdough bread. Not a big fan of feta, my wife ordered it without, which explained why it seemed one-dimensional. The entrée also had a choice of bacon or smoked salmon. Spanish Baked Eggs was a lot tastier. A pair of eggs came piping hot in a zesty tomato sauce with chorizo, olives, and potatoes. Toasted sourdough was also served on the side. A couple rounds of long blacks and flat whites completed our breakfast.

degraves espresso

Degraves Espresso

Spanish Baked Eggs

Spanish Baked Eggs

Green Eggs

Green Eggs

Il Tempo sits at the northern end of Degraves. It has an Italian menu of salads, soups, bruschetta, pasta, risotto and a few mains. Risotto Calamari e Gamberi was respectable except for a slight under-doneness of the rice and overcooked calamari rings, but the shrimp was perfectly cooked. Lamb ragu was a nice alternative to bolognese in the well-prepared Tagliatelle e Ragu d’Agnello.

il tempo

Il Tempo

Risotto Calamari e Gamberi

Risotto Calamari e Gamberi

Ragu

Tagliatelle e Ragu d’Agnello

Issus is not on Degraves but on Centre Place, the next stretch of amazing cafés a dog-leg to the north.

Before I continue, an anecdote. We were amused when the hotel clerk, in his words, “picked up on our accent.” Fair enough; we were Yanks in Oz after all. When we asked a café owner the name of the street we were gawking at, we heard him say “Seentah Plice,” which we couldn’t get a handle on until we saw the street sign. We hadn’t picked up on his accent.

Issus has a small dining area open to the alleyway, not to mention a few tables outside. It also has a small deli next door that sells prepared sandwiches and hot soups, the latter of which we ordered as takeout (or takeaway, as they say in the Commonwealth) for lunch yesterday. Like most other cafés along here, the menu is handwritten on boards or placards on the walls, adding to the European feel. Breakfast started with the usual espresso drinks, followed by house-made toasted muesli (as dried oats is called Down Under) with fresh yogurt (spelled yoghurt) and Middle Eastern Meatballs, cooked in a tomato sauce with mild Middle Eastern flavors, served with baked eggs and beans and bread sprinkled with zatar.

We met a Melbournian who told us she never misses a chance to eat on Degraves when she overnights at our hotel for special CBD events. We felt sorry for the guests who ate daily at the hotel buffet. Did they not know of the treasure just a half-block away or were they perfectly satisfied with the Big Breakfast?

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Barking up the Tree: Textures of the Royal Botanic Garden (Melbourne, VIC)


The Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne is one of the finest in the world, an easy walk across the Princes Bridge from Federation Square. This being nearly the third week into autumn, most all the flower blossoms were spent. Still, there was much to admire here. As you would imagine, there were many native trees of Australia on the grounds. What struck me were their wondrous bark patterns.

Turks in Melbourne, Börek on Elizabeth Street


I’d never heard of börek before, but as we were walking along Elizabeth Street recently, we came across a café, Borek Bakehouse.

It happens that there is a significant population of people of Turkish descent in Melbourne, estimated to be around 300,000 in 2013. This explains why we’d seen börek at more than one place as we walked around the CBD. Working in full view of passersby, a cook was making börek, rolling the dough into thin discs, filling them with a stuffing (spinach and cheese, spicy potato or spicy lamb), folding them and finishing them up in an oven. More like a thin pizza dough than puff pastry, it had no apparent seasoning. The börek was served piping hot, the crust crackling on the outside, chewy like pizza toward the center, with the stuffing providing all the flavor. We ate them al fresco, on a table outside the restaurant. They were simple and flavorful.

The restaurant also makes gözleme.

Gözleme

Gözleme

Börek

Börek

Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market


How does one describe the largest market in the southern hemisphere? Just big doesn’t seem adequate. The corner building as you approach it on Queen and Franklin Streets is rather ordinary, easy to walk past if you weren’t looking for the signs. The mass of people outside is no different than the crowds anywhere along Elizabeth. But, once you step inside, your perception gradually, then swiftly changes.

I say gradually because the first impression of inside stalls is similar to what I’d seen at Vancouver’s Granville Market or Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal. But as I continued further into the market, the scale simply overwhelmed me.

Queen Victoria Market spreads over two city blocks. It is divided into separate areas for produce, butchers, seafood vendors, delis, arts & crafts, even organic food and more. The competition between adjacent butchers, for example, is intense, though there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of patrons. In the deli section, you can walk past stall after stall with charcuterie hanging from each one. A few places had hawkers outside whose bellow in an ordinary space could easily hurt your eardrums.

The gallery below is a kid-in-the-candy-store record of what I’d seen.