To reach Australia, those intrepid early explorers and settlers from England, Ireland and Europe came around Africa, past the Cape of Good Hope. Because of the route they took, the port of first arrival for many early immigrants was Melbourne, down on the South Coast.
Melbourne likewise was our first stop in Australia, flying in from Christchurch, New Zealand.
Our “Ocean View” Apartment
In the St. Kilda neighborhood in Melbourne, we booked an apartment in a unique building designed to look like a stack of boxes, an exercise in architectural whimsy. From the outside it looked like a modern art project.
The interior was modern and slick, and we had a nice little balcony with a table for two. Our “ocean view” was of the Tasman Sea to our south, about a mile away.
From our balcony we could see the big ships anchored offshore, awaiting berths in the harbor (or so we guessed).
It was an urban setting, with traffic noise and the rumble of streetcars below.
Exploring Melbourne by Streetcar
Melbourne is known for its extensive streetcar system. In fact, one source says Melbourne’s is “the largest urban tramway network in the world.”
Everybody in Melbourne, old and young, rich and poor, seems to use the streetcars. For proponents of mass urban public transportation, it is a showpiece of a system.
We used the streetcars almost exclusively to get around town. The cars run continually in every direction. They were busy and crowded, but the people (both patrons and tram operators) were unfailingly courteous.
“On Melbourne summer mornings the green trams go rolling in stately progress down tunnels thick with leaves: the bright air carries along the avenue their patient chime, the chattering of their wheels.”
— Helen Garner, Cosmo Cosmolino, novel published in 1992
Marissa told us, “Definitely take a trip on the Great Ocean Road!!” So we did…
After arriving in Melbourne, we got an email from Marissa, the then-fiancée of Frank’s nephew Stephen. She was emphatic: We had to tour the Great Ocean Road!
(Marissa and Steve subsequently got married on the 15th of April; we traveled to Philadelphia for the not-to-be-missed celebration.)
It was just that simple: Marissa said do it, so we did it.
The day of the tour was dreary, cold and wet, so we dressed in rain parkas and sweaters.
Despite the weather, we felt pretty lucky when the driver pulled up to the curb early that morning to pick us up. It was a 25-person van, and we were the only passengers. The driver explained that we would rendezvous with the other tour participants farther up in town.
Feeling quite happy with our good fortune at being the first passengers, we grabbed the two best seats, with the longest leg room and the most sweeping views, just behind the driver.
“Oh, boy, this will be great,” we thought.
Alas, our spirits spiraled downward when in the Central Business District of Melbourne we met up with another van of equal dimensions, only to find it all but completely filled with the other tour participants.
There were exactly two open seats remaining for us, at the far rear of the van. We were behind the seats that straddled the back wheels, so far back that we would feel every bounce of the van magnified throughout the day. We had to squeeze down the narrow aisle past the other passengers to reach our seats in the extreme rear.
“The first shall be last.” We were last.
As the morning wore on and the rain persisted, all of the passengers got wet, at least on their outer garments and hats, during the various stops we made along the road. The interior of the van soon grew steamy with the moisture, to the point where the windows were completely fogged up. It was worse in the back of the van.
Adding to the displeasure was the unpleasant smell of 25 or so rain-dampened people, crammed together in close quarters.
But a welcome change came upon all of us around mid-morning. First, at our request the driver — a very friendly and articulate Aussie — turned up the defrosters in the van. The windows finally cleared. We could see outside again. The dampness inside lessened.
Then everyone’s mood seemed to shift. Soon we all began to get acquainted with one another.
A sense of community, prompted no doubt by the experience of shared adversity, and also by the good humor and cheerfulness of our guide, settled upon the group, including us two soggy guys in the back seat.
It was quite an international mix of people, from Europe, Asia and America. Those who did not understand English were able to follow the tour guide’s narrative by listening through headphones that provided simultaneous translation.
Marissa was right — the tour of the Great Ocean Road was wonderful.
We saw all kinds of sights, including wild Koalas high up in the eucalyptus trees (they reminded us of the tree sloths in Costa Rica), and a wallaby grazing in the rain.
In addition to dramatic and beautiful coastal views, we also visited primordial forests with huge trees native to the region, including (of course) eucalyptus.
The Wreck of the Loch Ard
Along the Great Coast Road, we came upon the site of an 1878 shipwreck in which all 50+ souls aboard were lost, except for a young ship’s apprentice and an Irish girl, both of them about 18 years of age.
The ship, called the Loch Ard, was bound for Melbourne from England, and was nearing Melbourne when it hit the rocks in dense fog and quickly sank.
The apprentice made it to shore but then heard the cries of the girl. He swam back out toward the wreckage and saved her. They found shelter on the beach where we stood.
Later, people speculated that the two should have married, but instead the poor traumatized girl returned to Ireland.
Her parents were among the more than 50 people who perished.
A visitor cannot help, looking out toward the site of the wreckage, to think of the fate of those who were lost.
They had traversed the world for five months, all the way from England to Australia, only to be wrecked and killed a few miles away from Brisbane, their destination.
The passengers and crew clung to each other in desperation as they perished in the cold ocean, within sight of the shore.
Sadly, the Loch Ard was only one of many ships lost there along what is called the “Shipwreck Coast” of Australia.
A consequence of our tour along the coast was that we came to appreciate the courage and fortitude of those early explorers and settlers.
An Irish “Faith Healer” in Melbourne
On our first day, we saw an advertisement for a production of a play called “Faith Healer” by the late Irish playwright Brian Friel.
We felt we had to go, because we have a connection to Brian Friel.
Friel’s mother and Frank’s mother came from the same small village in Donegal, Ireland, a town called Glenties.
Several of Friel’s plays take place in a mythical small town in Donegal called Ballybeg (literally, “small town” in Irish). It is widely supposed that Glenties served as the model for Ballybeg.
(By the way, one of Friel’s plays placed in Ballybeg was Dancing at Lughnasa, which was made into a movie in 1998 starring Merle Streep. The movie was filmed in Glenties.)
Another wee snippet: Frank’s maternal grandmother, Cassie Maguire, was a childhood friend of Brian Friel’s mother in Glenties. One of his plays was entitled “The Loves of Cass Maguire.”
Okay, okay, enough Brian Friel malarkey!
Simply put, we felt we had to go see his little play there in Melbourne.
We were glad we did. We loved the play.
The playwright used the novel technique of four long monologues, by three different characters, to tell the story. Each of the three had a varying version of events.
It was a powerful story as well, with a tragic ending there in Ballybeg. The acting and direction were superb.
Frank bragged to three Australian ladies in the seats behind ours about his mother’s connection to Brian Friel by way of Glenties. The ladies were duly impressed.
It was magical, really, to feel the connection to far-away Donegal, all the way down there in Melbourne, Australia.
Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens
As is our custom when visiting a new place, we spent our first full day in Melbourne just wandering from place to place and enjoying each other’s company.
We soon found ourselves in the most beautiful botanical gardens we had ever seen in a major city. Later we discovered that Sydney likewise has set aside and cultivated similarly impressive botanical gardens in the city center.
We suppose there are a variety of factors that make Australia’s urban botanical gardens so impressive.
First, of course, they draw upon the English gardening tradition of meticulous pruning, watering and maintenance.
Next, they are able to cultivate and display an amazing array of exotic species, many of them unique to Oceania and the Southern Hemisphere — plants, trees and birds you would seldom see elsewhere.
The overall effect was magical, especially in mid-summer. We were enthralled.
* * * * *
We have heard it said that Melbourne is one of the most livable cities in the world. Our short visit certainly helped cement the idea in our minds. We were very happy there.
I said, “Do you speak my language?”
He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich.
– Men at Work, Land Down Under (1981)