We’re driving down West Gate Bridge. It’s past 12.30, and Melbourne is more or less asleep (as is a friend who’s lying in the back seat of the car, having downed five glasses of good Aussie wine). My pal Mathew, who’s driving, is an Australian- and a brilliant advertisement for the country: extremely generous, very friendly, and the type who’s willing to go way out of his way to be nice. Well, this is nice enough- he’s taking us on a tour of the city, past midnight- and he has to drive home 3 hours out into the countryside after this.
We’ve been shown the sights of Melbourne- from the seclusion of Mathew’s somewhat decrepit old jalopy. The Victorian Parliament, a staid building in beige stone with very classic lines (Mathew, who doesn’t seem to have planned this circuit too well, goes past Parliament three times in the space of half an hour); the majestic Shrine of Remembrance; the Royal Botanic Gardens and Myer Music Bowl, and the Yarra River.
Mathew calmly admits that the Yarra looks nicest at night, when you can’t see all the mud. But he admits that the stream isn’t too bad during the day either- as long as you plonk a clothespin onto your nose. "This city isn’t called `Smell-bourne’ for nothing".
Well, maybe Mathew’s prejudiced. He’s a Ballarat boy, and people from Ballarat tend to think no place is better than Ballarat. But, really- jokes apart. Melbourne is not smelly. And the Yarra, even though it’s muddy, is actually a rather nice river. Melbourne’s a rather nice city. Period. Addictive, even. I’ve spent a few days here, and I, like thousands of tourists, never want to leave.
The people with whom I’m staying are, fortunately for me, more or less a 5/5 guide match- they rate history, nature and culture as high as I do, so deciding on where we should go is not too much a battle of wills. This is the first week of September, and the lovely Royal Botanic Gardens are at their best- already ablaze with azaleas, wattle, flowering peach and tulips. We begin with a short walk up to the majestic Shrine of Remembrance , then stroll down the low hill on which it stands, into the Gardens below. We wander around, admire the flowers, eat cucumber-and-cheese sandwiches, watch black swans floating on shimmering ponds and get a taste of paradise…
A walk along the river (the Yarra- yes, muddy is the word for it), and we step across Princes’ Bridge , down the road and into China Town , where a beautifully-cooked Oriental meal is really the best way to end the day.
That isn’t, of course, the end to the trip; other days follow, with more discoveries: the type of discoveries you can make only in Australia. A gnarled old tree with a huge gash in its side is pointed out as a `canoe tree’- a tree from whose wood the aborigines had once carved out a canoe. A drive down from the City into the suburbs, and we pass car after car with gold-and-chocolate scarves: fans returning from a major aerial pingpong (a.k.a. Aussie Rules Football) game, sporting the colours of the team they’ve been supporting. Above, on an electric wire, sit two yellow-crested cockatoos, and on a fence is perched a plump kookaburra, looking for all the world like a somewhat cheeky bandit.
Another day is devoted to a tour of the City: to a leisurely saunter past the wonderfully old-fashioned Banana Alley Vaults . The vaults, on the bank of the Yarra, were once used to store ripening bananas which had been shipped down from Queensland; today they’re minus the fruit, but the shops here are interesting enough. We meander down the street, admiring a prettily crafted silver koala pendant in one shop, a large oil painting of the Outback in another.
One evening, after a ride out to the tree-fern and gum-tree environs of Healesville Sanctuary , we go up to the top of Dandenong , the nearest of the Blue Mountain Ranges. More by chance than by design, we reach Dandenong at sunset, when nightfall turns Melbourne into a shimmering sea of lights. Melbourne harbour, beyond the city, adds its own lights to the panorama. It’s gorgeous; the setting sun as a background, the city lights in the foreground. And the Yarra, sparkling, romantic- and too dark to look muddy.
This, feel many, is the best view there is of Melbourne. Other diehard fans of the Garden City- including my pal Mathew- have an alternative to offer: the men’s toilet on the 35th floor of the Regent Hotel. The view, say those who’ve been in this celebrated lavatory, is stupendous. Ladies: the women’s is right next door, and photos taken from either of the two toilets are exactly the same. So much for the men’s.
But on one point few disagree: that Melbourne’s a lovely city. A warm, friendly city- a completely Aussie city.