I arrived in Melbourne as the sun was setting, starting to feel the toll of a day and a half in transit. My wonderful hosts picked me up at the airport and took me for dinner at the pub across the street. I did my best to put a dent in a "Parm" (chicken parmigiano, a pub staple here) bigger than my face, but the cold I contracted in Vancouver was starting to assert itself. My nose was running like a tap as I chugged down beer I couldn't really taste and reassured myself that bed was just a few metres away. I don't really remember going to sleep, and woke to find myself spooning my backpack.
I spent Friday sipping ginger tea and feeling like an embarrassing burnout. I was reminded of those television campaigns from the late nineties that warned of the hazards of sniffing glue; I was the twenty-something invalid who struggles to remember his name and tie his shoes in between lurid close of shots of aerosol can labels and fizzling brain cells.
The main event of the day was to venture out to the grocery store a few blocks away on one of the main streets that seems to divide our suburb of Collingwood from trendier Fitzroy. I was struck by how thoroughly English the shop was, with its entire half-aisle of baked beans, and countless types of bacon. It reminded me a great deal of the last time I was in a Tesco's, that distinct atmosphere of a store where even the things on sale still seem rather expensive.
For a nation of avowed drinkers, the Australians seem to put up with rather punitive alcohol prices, higher even than in Canada. This apparently was not always the case. I have been told that there was a time when certain drinks could be had quite cheaply but that new pricing regimes were introduced in a ham-handed effort to curb the less genteel manifestations of drinking culture. More on this later.
We spent the evening on Brunswick street, a main nightlife strip in Fitzroy. Bars here are staggering in their number and diversity, and we weren't even downtown. Needless to say I had no trouble getting to sleep at the end of the night, jetlag be damned!
In the morning, or closer to noon really, we hit the road towards Geelong, and on to the Victoria coast. After about an hour of highway driving we hit the coastal road, a winding two lane track with a great deal of beach-bound traffic. We stopped for a coffee in Lorne, gawking at the garish holiday homes and tourist traps. I dipped my toes in the waters of the Bass Strait. I was relieved to find that while Victoria's beaches are among the coldest in Australia, the water lacked that crippling frigid edge particular to the Atlantic. The swimming would have to wait, however, as our destination was still a few minutes down the road: Cumberland River Holiday Park.
The holiday park (a very domestic campground for those unfamiliar with the term) brought back a slough of fond childhood memories of camping in similar places in the U.K. and North America. The coin operated showers, the campground store with its treasured supply of cold drinks, the lineup at the communal dishwashing station, the stubborn self-imagined solitude of so many families sitting within spitting distance of each other. In the absence of any fences, people tend to make a little extra effort to be good neighbours, and this usually means a cautious polite restraint.
With our hastily thrown together gear, and our friends' red convertible, we were a bit of a contrast to the old hands of car camping that frequented this space the size of a football field. Most had at least three children and as many boogie boards, to be found in and around the grounds of their towering multi-room canvas tents. Everywhere there were fires burning in the appointed oil drum pits, even though it was hours before dusk. Cast iron pots sat amongst the coals or upended to dry on the hoods of weathered 4x4's. Children chased ducks from site to site, while their parents hung laundry on lines lashed to scrawny gum trees. A steady procession of young men with fishing rods seemed to disappear into the bush, following the creek, only for another to emerge in the direction of the sea. I never saw anyone with anything remotely resembling a fish.
We took a walk before dinner, once our tents were pitched. The Cumberland River is a bit of a misnomer. I suppose you could technically drown in it, if you put some effort into it. It was no more than 10 metres across at its widest, and hardly even seemed to flow in its shallower parts. Similar bodies of water in the wilds that I'm used to don't even have names. Apparently local memory and geological evidence both attest to its ability to transform into a raging torrent of Biblical proportions when the rains come down in force, but perhaps river is still a bit of a strong word to use. Path-that-a-piss-ton-of-water-follows-on-occasion might be a more appropriate term, but I suppose that doesn't fit as easily onto a sign.
This was my first foray into the Australian bush, and I exercised an apparently hilarious level of vigilance towards the numerous deadly threats this country has to offer. I had been told repeatedly that Victoria is largely devoid of the crawlies behind this reputation, but still was a bit reluctant to be the unlucky discoverer of some new species. With visions of some horrendous Australian version of the candiru swimming in my head, I decided against dipping into the murky waters of the swimming hole at an eddy in the river.
The light of the setting sun turned the gum trees on the steep slopes of the gorge a bright orange colour and made the leaves look like iron left to rust. We headed back to the camp and on to a seaside pub, a tourist hole with atrocious cooking and worse service. We let our campfire burn until the last minute permitted by regulation, sipping bottle after bottle of red wine and watching the stubborn hardwood logs give way to the heat.
I woke up early to the cries of magpies in the hills. Since I was the only one of our party blessed with the gift of time zone disfunction, I let the others sleep and headed down to the beach in the dawn light to see what I might find. The tide was low and the rocks were dotted with pools of stranded limpet and anemone. I saw a lone swimmer, striding waist deep into the rolling surf. The way he tensed his heavyset frame against the waves, with the slate and ivory horizon beyond him, cut a striking image; it was a bit like that famous painting of the wanderer by Caspar David Friedrich.
After breakfast, we packed up our camp and returned to the beach where I was intent on having a morning dip. I was only in up to my waist, and adjusting to the bracing water, when I noticed a jellyfish dancing beneath the surface by my side. It was about the size of a beer mat, translucent with a cobalt blue fringe on its interior. I returned to dry land to ask the locals about it, just in case. One member of our party was quick to vividly recall the time as a child that she chanced an encounter with a "bluebottle." They weren't deadly, she assured me, but I didn't want to touch one. I returned to the water, only to discover that the jellyfish had friends. The rest of the gang lost their interest in swimming, so we decided to try the beach in Lorne.
I've since done a bit of amateur research and am not so sure that the jellyfish I saw was actually a "bluebottle," aka "Portugese Man of War," at all. It was definitely shaped like a typical jellyfish, rather than having the weird sail shaped pouch on top, and it didn't seem to be trailing any stingers. Better safe than sorry I suppose, but all the more reason to bone up on the fauna and whatnot.
We had a swim in Lorne, and I made the grievous mistake of basking in the sun for a few minutes before we went for a beer. As I write this I am still recovering from the sunburns covering my body. The past couple of days since our return to Melbourne have been a write-off, with the mild heat exposure compounding my pathetic condition. The saving grace has been that the Australian Open is now underway, and my new hosts were kind enough to explain to me the mysteries of tennis so I would have a vague sense of what was going on as I lay on the couch in a state neither wholly plant nor animal. Hopefully hiding from the sun won't become a habit.