Monday, 28 December 2009

It's just not cricket

I've had the most sensational three days, living in the lap of luxury in a hotel on Melbourne's most exclusive street and being a guest of a member of the MCC at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. It's back to earth with a bump today, though - a rickety top bunk in an eight-share dorm, with two blokes snoring like bandsaws, five people returning from their night out at 3am and a couple giggling and rocking the bed below me (I don't think they were doing anything more sinister than cuddling, thank God, but the bed was really not up to much - the slightest movement had it trembling like a hammock tossing on the high seas). Anyway, after some moments of severe petulance at reception this morning, I've been moved to a different (and hopefully more peaceful) room, and tomorrow I have a trip down the Great Ocean Road to look forward to.

In the meantime, I'll just reminisce about living in the Novotel - with a chaise longue, for reading, and a gloriously comfortable double bed, for lounging, and room service, for stuffing myself with delicious morsels on Christmas day! Not to mention watching films until my eyes were popping, plus a new print of Easy Rider at the arthouse cinema on Boxing day. And amidst all this sybaritic pleasure, I even managed to look after my soul too, and visited St Paul's Cathedral for Christmas morning mass, which was lovely.

And yesterday was the apogee - a visit to the MCG, which for most Melburnians is considerably more holy than St Paul's, and my first live Test match, courtesy of Keir, whose guest I was. Those in the know said it was the slowest day's play they'd ever seen (in fact, I missed the most exciting part of the day - the streaker - when I popped to the loo, dammit), but being a cricket virgin I think I got more out of it than them. First, I had nothing to compare it to, and second there were moments - when Pakistan was scoring runs, and Australia was taking wickets - when I could really see why people become obsessed with the game. Looks like I might have something to watch to tide me over when the rugby's on holiday for the summer...

Aah, heady days. And more to come - the Great Ocean Road, New Year in Melbourne, and then pastures new in New Zealand. On second thoughts, who cares about a bit of snoring?!

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Happy Christmas!

I'm not sure if I'll have internet access over Christmas, so I just wanted to wish everyone a very happy time, and a merry New Year too! I'll be back on 28 December, blogging again, and in the meantime, here's wishing you all health and happiness. Much love, Abigail xxx


Just back from two days exploring Gippsland, the highlight of which was the penguin parade at Phillip Island. The Little Penguins are the smallest in the world (as you might expect from the name), and also the most timid. During the day, if they're not out at sea stuffing themselves on anchovies and sardines, they hide away in tiny burrows, peering out suspiciously at all the tourists urging them to come out for a photo opportunity. In the early evening, after an afternoon on Churchill Island, looking at the National Trust building there (once a farm, then a holiday home, and now again a model farm; absolutely charming), and watching a demonstration of sheep-shearing (I felt very smug, having done it myself!), we headed down to the Nobbies headland to try to spot a few. I have a photo of a flash of white breast hidden in the hillside, and we saw several lurking underneath the boardwalk, wondering who all these bloody people were disturbing the peace, but it wasn't until we were settled in our seats on the beach and darkness had fallen that the real action began.

They don't like walking across the sand, because they're not camouflaged for it and fear all the birds of prey, so first they gather at the water's edge, waiting for others to come and join them. Then they creep to the rocks, wait for a bit, wait for a bit, wait for a bit, and... turn around and rush back into the water. Then they begin again, and you think they're going to make it across the beach this time, then... something spooks them and they rush back into the water. This went on for about 20 minutes, until there was a critical mass and suddenly hundreds of penguins were streaming past us, having a groom and a fight and a chat, finding their babies and feeding them, and waddling up to their nests on the hillside (and falling over when they'd had too much to eat!). There was even some penguin loving going on.

It's the largest colony of Little Penguins in the world - about 30,000 on the island all told - and even though the Parade is a tourist trap it was just spectacular. Photography is banned, because the penguins don't like the flashes (their eyes are very sensitive), and the people are firmly kept away from the penguins' homes and coralled onto boardwalks, so as far as it can be it's regulated in favour of the penguin. Plus they're also busy demolishing holiday homes on that part of the island so the penguins can move in and expand the colony! More penguins, please - they're absolutely adorable.

The next day we headed off to Wilson's Promontory, which was equally spectacular, in terms of scenery. In places it's still looking very sorry because of the fires in February, but most places are amazingly recovered. We did some bush walking down to the world's southernmost mangroves, and then high up on to the hillsides to see the amazing views out over hundreds of hectares of bush and forest. The shine was taken off the day a bit when I ran into a low-hanging branch and thumped my head (nosebleed, lump on my head, the works - most embarrassing!), but once I'd mopped myself up a bit I was game on to head to Squeaky Beach. As usual with Australian titles, the name says it all - the beach squeaks when you walk on it. Apparently, this is because the sand has a high level of tin in it, making the grains very fine and regular, so they squeak when they rub together. More importantly to me, it was a beautiful, white beach with crashing waves, bristling with surfers doing amazing things on boards, and the sound of the surf whispering on to the shore as the sun started to go down.

We rounded off a lovely day by going wombat hunting on a deserted airfield; sadly it was still too warm for them to come out - all right-thinking wombats spend the heat of the day underground. It seems the nearest I'm going to come to my favourite Australian animal is the entrance to their burrows - but that's OK, I guess. I've not been short of wildlife on this trip! And now I'm off to spend Christmas in the lap of luxury, thanks to Mum - Novotel on Collins Street, here I come. Hooray!

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Culture vulture

More from Melbourne, and I'm still loving it! Saturday was Ned Kelly day - Victoria's most famous son. I visited the Old Melbourne Gaol, home to the death masks of criminals hanged on the grounds, including our Ned, which was incredibly atmospheric and not a little creepy. You could brave the claustrophobia and wander right into the cells - making sure the door didn't swing shut behind you... The effect was diluted somewhat by a painfully embarrassing live-action reenactment of the Ned Kelly story by two actors playing all the parts in bad wigs. I was reminded of a street performer Paul and I saw once at the Wireless festival - all eyes and teeth, he'd realised it was his moment and was giving it his all.

After that, it was on to the State Library, which is sensational - the domed reading room is just beautiful; I almost signed up to a course of study there and then just so I could spend time studying again. Wonderful. And around the rotunda there were exhibitions, one displaying some of the library's collection of old texts, from Bibles to Japanese ukiyo-e illustrations, and another on the changing face of Melbourne, which had Ned Kelly's armour from the siege of Glenrowan - mighty cool.

And yesterday I headed down to the South Bank (wherever I go in the world, it seems there's a south bank with all the arts stuff there) to take in the National Gallery of Victoria's international collection. The building itself is a work of art - one wall is made of water, constantly falling before being recycled to start again - and inside it's all high ceilings and angular rooms. I only had time to look at the European stuff, which starts with icons and altarpieces from the 14th century, and goes on to Francis Bacon and Barbara Hepworth, and of course Stanley Spencer (hooray!).

And there's more to see today - I might wander down to Parliament House and have a look at Carlton Gardens, and the Melbourne Museum. And later I think I'll have to take advantage of my hippie surroundings in Fitzroy and find a meditation class. Groovy. And tomorrow I'm off to see the fairy penguins on Phillip Island, which will be the cutest thing I've ever seen in my life!

Friday, 18 December 2009

Cinema paradiso

I've just spent my first day exploring Melbourne, and I'm so excited I've had to rush back to write this! Today I was mostly hanging around Federation Square, which is home to some outstandingly ugly - but strangely compelling - architecture, notably the Ian Potter Centre, home to Victoria's collection of Australian art. This in itself was fantastic - Hugh Ramsay, Russell Drysdale, Sidney Nolan and more - but it was also housed in the most spectacular space. Around every corner was a window onto the Yarra river, or a peek at some steel-and-glass corridors, or the contrast of the grand old, mellow stone Flinders Street station... I'm not usually a fan of all those self-consciously geometric angles, but somehow it works.

But the best was to come: the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, which is a film buff's heaven. If I was speaking I'd be stuttering with excitement - there are clips of early movies, from Georges Melies to The Story of the Kelly Gang from 1906, the world's first full-length feature film (though only a few frames survive now); there are celebrations of Australian film icons, from Mad Max (they even have the car!) to Christopher Doyle, a true artist and my favourite cinematographer. Even more excitingly I discovered that he only started in films in his mid-thirties, which gives me hope for myself - if I can achieve a tiny part of what he has I'll be the happiest woman alive. Plus there are amazing interactive displays showing the separate importance of colour, sound, light and movement to make a beautiful, coherent whole. And an installation from Anthony McCall, who experiments with solid light, as well as a short from the Australian animator Anthony Lucas, whose shadow plays are the most sensational things - watch this clip and you'll see what I mean... I've booked a ticket f0r Boxing Day for the centre's showing of a new print of Easy Rider, so I'll have the chance for another look, but I'm just overwhelmed with excitement - I could jump up and down!

That's going to be a hard act to follow, but I think that Melbourne's up to it. I'm staying up in Fitzroy, which has the feel of Brighton, somehow - slightly seedy and dirty, but hippieish and laidback, with second-hand stores and kooky cafes everywhere you look. In fact, I'm going to be putting on all the weight I've lost, because the food round here is sensational - every nation on earth is represented, most of them within a stone's throw of my hostel! I've already been taken to a Thai place with the most exquisite dishes (and beers from 100 countries to complement it) by Pearl, who was on the dive trip with me. Still to come is the Victoria Markets, with all that foodie produce. In short, I'm in heaven!

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Lest we forget

I've made it to Canberra, and I was going to write a post about how it's so empty of people it feels like the Marie Celeste (or that stretch of the A406 on the way to Stoke Newington; those of you who've driven it will know what I mean); how the architecture in the parliamentary zone is as concrete and ugly as the South Bank, but without the latter's looming gravitas; how the best building is the National Portrait Gallery, filled with wooden struts going up the walls that make you feel as though you're in some MC Escher drawing; how the place lacks soul, because it's been constructed rather than allowed to evolve... And all of this is true, but I've just spent the morning at the Australian War Memorial, and feel too sombre to be a smartarse.

It's a combination of the Imperial War Museum and the Cenotaph, standing at the top of a hill running up from the centre of the city, a broad boulevard flanked by memorials to the Korean, Vietnam, First and Second World Wars. Inside there's a series of exhibition halls telling Australia's wartime history, with dioramas and paintings, photographs and personal effects... There are even recordings of former prisoners of war in the Pacific, which are incredibly moving - more than once I was wiping a tear from my eye. As I was, of course, over the exhibits on Gallipolli. It's all been done so well - it's dignified, and moving, and educational, all at once. And then you come outside into the searing heat (it's 35C today) and the dry smell of the eucalyptus, with no one around except in cars, and it becomes something you'll never forget.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Ride the high country

Want to see some pictures? Here's the link for Leconfield:
These are some of my favourites off the CD they made up for us so we didn't have to carry around cameras the whole time. Oh, and there are some of me too - not so much my favourites but at least you get the idea of what I was doing!

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Whole Lotta love

Back from Leconfield and a week on horseback, and I'm just about walking straight again (I was using muscles where I didn't know a person had muscles). Aches, pains, bruises and scratches aside (including a rather neat mark from a calf's hoof on my thigh!), what a fantastic week. It turned out I really didn't have to have horseriding experience, as my horse knew what was what without my input. Tim (the school's owner) paired me up with Lotta, a beautiful tall chestnut who was (mostly) a sweetheart. In fact, she and I had a fair amount in common: she liked to eat all the time, hated going up hills, and didn't suffer fools gladly - the fool in this case being me! We'd be riding off to muster sheep or cattle, and she'd stop and look round at me with this expression on her face that just told me to stop trying to direct her and let her get on with it. By the end of the week, though, we'd reached an understanding - she sometimes listened to me, and always let me check her hooves and groom her, and even had a bit of a nuzzle and a whinny, bless her heart.

When we weren't riding out to far-flung parts of the farm to round up sheep and cows, we were doing all sorts - wrestling sheep to the ground and shearing them, putting in fencing, shoeing horses, slaughtering and butchering sheep, lassoing, whip-cracking and calf-wrangling. The latter was indeed the most rugged part of the course - especially when I was paired up with Philipp (another glasses wearer) and we were told to take off our spectacles in case they got broken in the scrum. The plus side, of course, was that we couldn't see the hooves coming, but the minus side was that we couldn't see the damn animal all that well! Still, we got it down on the second attempt (once I'd got hold of the tail and hung on for dear life), and then they castrated the poor little bugger. It was all very red in tooth and claw, with that outback spirit of no-nonsense make-do-and-mend. Plus we ate the balls later on that evening - just like crackling, and rather tasty!

Sadly, without the Jackaroo school the farm wouldn't be viable - there just hasn't been enough rain for too long; all the horses and cattle have to be fed extra because the pasture won't sustain them on its own, and that's 400-plus acres. And that's not their only problem - during the week there was a haze of smoke on the horizon from 5o bushfires in the Tamworth area, and it's only the start of the summer. The previous week they'd all had to spend Saturday night fighting a fire on their own property too. What makes up for the harsh existence, I guess, is the slow pace of life and the amazingly beautiful scenery. Certainly the staff seem to like it - they're all backpackers who've stayed for months to get experience, notably Robbie, the manager, who was in road construction back in Holland but now shoes horses and castrates cows with aplomb! And we pupils had a great time, eating round the campfire and being woken at 6.30am from our wooden bunks in the shed with country music.

For me it was a truly memorable experience, and despite being kack-handed at just about everything we tried (except the sheep - I was quite good at that!), I wouldn't have missed any of it for worlds. Tomorrow I'm off to Canberra and a post-Impressionist exhibition that's on loan from the Musee d'Orsay, but I might well be hankering for the cowboy life...

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Even cowgirls get the blues

Proving once again that Australia is a land of contrasts, I've come to Tamworth, the country music capital of Oz, where I'm preparing myself to be turned into a Jillaroo (Australia's version of a cowgirl) over the next five days. So far I have the hat, and tomorrow morning we're all going to pick up the second-hand clothes, but beyond that I'm apprehensive. I asked one girl who's on the course if she had riding experience. "Oh, no," she laughed gaily. "Just dressage and showjumping, not Western." Which was distinctly daunting for yours truly, who hasn't so much as been on a donkey ride down the beach. The nearest I've been to riding, in fact, is reading "National Velvet". Still, I'm here now and stiffening my upper lip as we speak. After all, I'm a good sturdy girl from good sturdy peasant stock, and if I don't shine at the riding and mustering, hauling sheep about should be no problem!

I'm going to be out of contact for the whole week - we're on a farm in the outback hills, and there's no mobile phone reception or internet - so if you're interested in seeing how I'll be spending my time, this is the link: The calf-wrestling looks particularly rugged, I must say! I'll do a post on the whole experience when I'm back in Sydney next weekend... It's all a far cry from the Eastern beaches cliff-top walk from Bondi to Coogee, or the chi-chi Paddington markets on Oxford Street, but I can certainly say I've never done anything like this before! Wish me luck, guys and gals. Yee haw!

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

My Blue heaven

Up in the Blue Mountains, and I've got my groove back. I lost my zest for a while there, but a few days of crisp, clean air and hiking through wondrous scenery has brought it all back again! I'm staying in the most amazing hostel - it's like a Swiss chalet, all wooden walls and polished floorboards, jolly paintwork and roaring fires (I don't know why I thought the mountains would be hot - the clue's in the name after all; I've had to invest in another fleece when I brought frankly unsuitable clothing up here!). It's small and friendly and great to come back to after a hard day's hiking.

Talking of which, yesterday I climbed down the Giant Staircase (I was going to go back up again, but by the time I'd got to the bottom my legs were trembling and I figured I'd be stranded halfway up the side of the mountain; these are really steep steps, and there are a lot of them). Then I walked along the valley floor among the tree ferns and climbers, with the sunlight filtering through the foliage, the previous night's rain a distant memory. And after a quick trip up to the top via cablecar, I wandered past the Katoomba Falls and along the cliff walk to the Three Sisters (Aboriginal princesses who were turned to stone to save them from their father's enemies, but tragically he was killed before he could turn them back).

Today I'm heading into Leura - to browse the second-hand bookshops and antique shops if the rain doesn't ease up, or to explore another part of the cliff walk if it does. It doesn't really matter - the walking is beautiful, and the towns are charming, so I'm in heaven whichever I do. Truly, this has been one of my highlights - I absolutely love it up here.