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Sunday, January 29, 2012

NZ to OZ

It had been 45 days or so since I’d worn shoes.  And only on two very cool days in New Zealand (and once when I played golf in sandals) had I even worn socks.  As a result, my feet were starting to take on a very weathered look, much like Mother Teresa’s face, especially on my big toes just below the nail.  Considering that we were heading into warmer weather over the next couple of months, I was pondering the possibility of letting that process continue to the point where the image of Mother Teresa’s face on my feet could be something of a worldwide or at least Asia-Pacific sensation.  People would come from all around to gaze at my toes.  Kind of like when someone sees the Virgin Mary in a grilled Cheese, or Jesus in the condensation of an office building window in Florida.  The problem was that the skin on the heels of my feet was starting to crack and become painful when I walked.  I knew we had a lot of walking to do on the trip, so I broke down and bought some running shoes when we were killing time in our half-day in Auckland.  Not that I was going to start a running regimen anytime soon.  I don’t run unless-a) someone is chasing me-b) I’m being chased or c) I have a chance to prevent a Titleist that my wife has hit from finding a watery grave.  I found some reasonably priced Diadora running shoes at a discount department store near the motel we were staying for one night near the Auckland airport.  That would prove to be one of the best decisions I made on this trip as we headed to Australia to get our walkabout on. 

Having stayed in 14 different places in our 28 days in New Zealand we were determined to do more staying and less driving in our 34 days in Australia.  Our time in the land that is called Oz in this part of the world would start in Melbourne.  Things got off to a tough start when we spent over an hour getting through customs. But as happens often in life, gratification delayed is made worth the wait and that would be the case with the largest city in the state of Victoria.  When planning our trip, we were unaware that our time in Melbourne would coincide with the Australia Open tennis tournament.  That became more apparent as we tried to reserve a hotel and found little in anything resembling an affordable category anywhere in the Central Business District.  We settled on a Best Western right on the tram line about 25 minutes outside of downtown and that proved to be a wise move.  The tram stop is within view of our room and the tram goes by in both directions every seven or eight minutes.

It’s a clean and efficient system, although a bit slow by other city’s standards as it runs above ground, and has to deal with street level traffic.  After getting an early check-in to our modestly priced hotel room where we would all be in the same room together, we grabbed a tram and headed into Melbourne to check out a few sights.

Love at first sight is certainly a cliché, but that was the case for us with Melbourne.  It’s a clean, modern city that also has some fantastic old architecture.  None is more impressive that Flinders Street Station, the Grand Central Station of Melbourne. 

It’s the vibrant center of the transportation system, situated right on the river.  The following day it was alive with activity for what the locals claimed was Australia Day, but what we really thought was just an excuse to throw us a welcoming party.  Taking the tram into town again, we melded in with the crowds milling through the streets, some of which were just re-opening after a morning patriotic march.  Our goal was to make it to the Kings Domain park where a car show featuring some 450 vintage cars was being held.  The weather could not have been better as we made our way into the show and checked out the cars that had been lovingly maintained by their owners.  

Having seen our share of car shows in the states, it was a pleasure to see so many different vintage cars, many models of which we had never seen before.  The most prevalent was the Holden brand, which had so many great designs.  Food tents offered a wide variety of products, and while Annie and the kids stood in line for pizza, I queued up for something called a Yabba Patty.  I found out from someone else who was already in line that a yabba was a type of prawn, kind of in between a shrimp and a crayfish.  The patty wasn’t as tasty as I had hoped, but my time in line provided me with the chance to see a guy in a Bengals jersey. 

I was somewhat surprised, but not shocked as I had seen several NFL and NBA jerseys along with MLB caps during our time in New Zealand.  Still, it was great to see the orange and black stripes as I approached him and asked about the jersey.  He was a local who said he just liked the NFL, but he followed the Bengals as when I said that they had a better season than expected, he said it would have been better had they beaten Houston in the playoffs.  I gave him a quick education on the Who-Dey cheer and we shook hands and parted ways.  

After lunch and a look at some more gorgeous cars, I saw a man with his family getting ready to get on some bikes they had secured to a lamp post, and he was wearing a Reds hat.  I approached him and asked if he was from Cincinnati, knowing that was probably not the case, and when I heard his answer I knew it wasn’t.  Turns out he had worked in the States for a while and had some dealings with Procter and Gamble, which is how he became familiar with the first professional baseball team.  Feeling like I was at Cours D’Elegance, a car show held every year in Ault Park in Cincinnati, we turned our attention back to the autos.  That attention was diverted by the sound of barking dogs, which turned out to come from a competition nearby.  Teams of dogs and their handlers were taking place in a penned in area, in which Annie and Marley became engrossed.  While they watched the teams of four dogs run relays, Ben and I went to check out more of the cars.  He likes more exotic modern cars like Buggatis and Lamborghinis, he was drawn in by the wide variety of Aston Martins from the 1960s on display.  Our viewing of those was interrupted by the sudden sound from the skies that made us feel like we were GIs in a field in France in World War II when the Luftwaffe showed up out of nowhere.  Instead of diving into a roadside ditch for cover, we looked to the skies to see a squadron of a half-dozen planes performing maneuvers over Kings Domain.

The crowds in the park stopped and looked up to take in the impressive sight of the planes as they screamed by in what seemed like increasingly lower heights.  Fortunately, the pilots decided to keep things above the tree lines, much to the relief of the Aussies celebrating the day the Brits showed up in 1778.

The rest of the day was a testament to unplanned travel.  It was only about 2:15 in the afternoon, and thanks to our purchase of four day passes on the Melbourne Metlink, we had plenty of time to go pretty much wherever we wanted. The problem was, with internet access limited thus far on the trip much more than we expected, we hadn’t been able to do much research on our various stops along the way.  As I had been researching places for us to stay in Melbourne, the St. Kilda area came up as an interesting destination.  I looked at the Metlink map and saw that the 3a tram heading in that direction would take us to St. Kilda, so we decided to give it a go.  15-20 minutes later, we followed the lead of many of the other people on the tram and disembarked at the St. Kilda stop. 

The Fitzroy Street section of St. Kilda was just what we were looking for: several shops and restaurants, and an ice cream shop.  As we waited for our scoopage, I noticed several people in beach cover-ups, and Annie said she saw what looked to be a beach area a couple of blocks away, so, armed with ice cream, we headed for what we thought was the coast.  As we got closer, we saw what we thought were parasailers, but once we arrived we found a bay full of kite boarders.  There were probably two-dozen people on wake boards, clutching the controls of kites that enabled them to speed around the water.  It was very windy, so the boarders were able to pick up speed, sometimes to the point where they could fly in the air, ten to fifteen feet high for a few seconds.

If explorer Jonathan Cook had encountered this site when be became the first European to arrive on the Australian coast in 1770, he probably would have retreated in horror, and Australia Day would not exist.  Being brave Americans who have successfully dealt with the Brits in the past, we soaked up the atmosphere, taking a stroll down the pier, gazing back at the people enjoying their last weekend of the summer before the start of the school season.  The view from the pier back toward the shore provided a gorgeous view of Melbourne’s skyline through the masts of sailboats in the marina, and the kite boarders sailing through the summer afternoon. 

The strong winds that helped provide such a colorful tableau pushed us back toward the restaurants of Fitzroy Street as by now it was after five.  We were hungry and had forty-five to sixty minutes ahead of us on the tram back to the hotel.  Outdoor dining at a restaurant with a menu that fit our needs allowed us to bask in the festive mood of the Aussies celebrating their day.  We were Aussies for a day, maybe a month, maybe more, and loving every minute of it!

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