After leaving Sydney, we continued to head south in the Tasman Sea, which had calmed down for the time being and was now masquerading as a placid lake. When we reached the bottom of Australia, and started heading west, we passed by the Wilson Promontory. This jutting headland is marked by a lighthouse that is still a critical navigational aid for mariners due to the frequent fog.
Melbourne sits at the bottom of the country, facing Tasmania, in the well protected arms of Fort Philips Bay. It is the capital of the State of Victoria, and has a population of 4.2 million, which makes it the second largest city, after Sydney. But, unlike Sydney, which was founded as a penal colony for Britain’s outcasts, Melbourne’s streets never echoed with the clank of chains and shackles. It was founded in 1835 by free settlers.
In 1851, gold was discovered near Melbourne and the city quickly became the hub for Australia biggest and most prolonged gold rush. Prospectors from Britain, Europe, the Americas and Asia turned this backwater town into a metropolis. There was extraordinary affluence through the 1880’s and the population soared. The classic victorian appearance the city retains today dates back to this time period.
After the rolling hills and dramatic headlands around Sydney, we were surprised to see that Melbourne is completely flat, with some small mountain ranges in the distance. But flat is good for the hot air balloons that dotted the skyline just after dawn. Today is “Labor Day”, a national holiday in Australia, and later on we will to head downtown to check out the festivities.
But first on our agenda is a visit to the Dandenong National Park, about 30 miles east of the city. Along the way we drove through charming victorian villages dotted with adorable cottages, beautiful gardens and lots of restaurants and cafes. When we reached the park, we hiked through the bush and once again marveled at all the multicolored native birds. Birding back home is bland in comparison! Two kangaroos bounded across the trail at high speed directly in front of us, and disappeared down an embankment before I could get a photo. They are considered a nuisance in Australia, because they eat everything in the garden and are a hazard on the roads at night, just like our white tailed deer. Kangaroo is such a curious name for an animal, so I asked a park ranger about the origin. She told us that when Captain Cook landed in Australia in 1772, and asked the local Aborigines the name of this bizarre hopping creature, they responded with “Kankarru”, which loosely translates into “I don’t understand your question”. Somehow, out of that, Kangaroo was born.
We also learned that the predominant trees in the park are Mountain Ash, which have a clever defense mechanism against being overtaken and eventually toppled by the thick heavy vines the populate the area. It’s quite simple. They shed their bark when the “sense” vines are adhering to their trunks, so the vines can’t hold on. Now that’s a smart tree.
Before leaving the Park, I captured this photo of the downtown area in the distance, almost indistinguishable in the blanket of smog. Melbourne has one of the largest urban footprints in the world due to its low density housing. The result is a vast suburban sprawl, with a high level of car dependence and minimal public transport outside of the downtown core. Apparently, the air quality has improved greatly since the 1980’s. Yikes.
Back in Melbourne, we took the shuttle bus from the port to the heart of downtown and headed to the Moomba Festival, which is traditionally a part of the Labor Day Celebration. The official meaning of Moomba is given by the festival organizers as “let’s get together and have fun”, but the word means “up your bum” in many local Aboriginal languages. Now that’s hilarious. Perhaps it was the aborigines who suggested the name, considering how they were treated by the Europeans in the “early days”.
There were thousands of Melbournians enjoying a day off from school and work. We camped on a shaded bench and were captivated by the spectacle. An amusement pier, high flying carnival rides, lots of music, and acrobatic water-skiers kept us entertained.
On the way back to the shuttle stop, we strolled along the river. Melbourne is considered to be one of the world’s “most livable cities”. I can see why. We really enjoyed our time here.