Melbourne: Hook Turns & Flat Whites

For as long as I can remember, Australia has been a land of myth and wonder for me. As an American, my exposure to Australia and all it had to offer came from Outback Steakhouse and a weird Olsen twin movie whose plot is summed up by IMDB as “Hoodlums chase twin sisters (Ashley Olsen, Mary-Kate Olsen) around Australia in an attempt to keep them from testifying in court.”

In the years that followed, I learned about boomerangs and Midnight Oil, vegemite and cane toads, and the rapturous mouth-joy that is Bundaberg Ginger Beer.

My real appreciation for the surreal, antipodal continent that was so far away from New Jersey I figured I’d never get there came from Bill Bryson’s humorous, well-researched book Down Under, which I have read more than twice and am currently paging through again. Between this and Sapiens, I have come to regard Australia as one of the most culturally, geographically, and environmentally interesting places on the planet.

Australia is so far away even from landmasses near it that its flora and fauna got to evolve unimpeded. (Humans were busy hunting other cool animals to extinction, like North America’s giant ground sloth. Evidence suggests that the first humans to set foot on Australia did so between 45,000-70,000 years ago, although Europeans didn’t show up until much later.) Hence, Australian megafauna thrived and animals evolved in ways completely unlike animals anywhere else in the world. (Plants, too.)

Size-wise, Australia is enormous; its martian outback is no place for humans, which is why its cities lie along the coast. That leaves the middle of the country mostly empty and probably teeming with fascinating fossils and clues about the first people to inhabit the island. Imagine what they’ll uncover in Australia in years to come.

Overall, it’s an exciting place. Which is why, after last year’s successful Mongolia trip, we opted for Australia this year.

Very little planning went into the trip. We all agreed that nature was a priority, so we booked most of our time in cabins either in or near national parks. We agreed that we would fly out as soon as school finished, although in the weeks leading up to the holiday, we all forgot exactly what date we’d chosen to fly. Other than that, it was pretty hodgepodge.

In fact, at 2:00pm on the day we were leaving, Holly sent a message with a link to an Australian travel website saying, “We all need to apply for and print this visa before we leave for the airport today.”

We were all ready for a holiday.

It was relatively smooth sailing through the Manila airport. Rosie struggled with UK visa issues while the flight attendants pointed in amusement at Carl’s longboard decks.

“Are those surfboards?” asked one of them.

We flew Qantas from Manila to Sydney on an 8-hour overnight flight. From Sydney, we hopped a 1.5 hour flight to Melbourne, where we shuffled bleary-eyed around the luggage carousel, waiting for our things.

Alicia and I headed for the Budget car rental desk to expedite our airport exit. We were greeted by a cheery attendant named Steve, who seemed excited when we mentioned we were going to the Grampians.

“If you’re taking the Ocean Road and you want to see koalas, there’s a convenience store halfway between Lorne and Melbourne on the Kennet River. Lots of koalas there,” he told us, typing something on the keyboard. “Do you want to add insurance?”

Alicia and I both looked at each other.

“Collision,” he added. “There’s a lot of kangaroos out in the Grampians where you’re going.”

“Are you suggesting we might hit a kangaroo?” I asked incredulously.

He shrugged. “There’s a lot of them.”

Once we were comfortably insured (my credit card apparently covered us all), we headed out to the parking garage to claim our vehicle. Alicia had rented a Kia Carnival, which looked like a minivan, but what we found in the space was a lumbering beast of a van called a Hyundai Imax. I thought Imax was a place you went to see loud movies with vivid scenery, but I guess it wasn’t too far off — the van was huge. (The website tries to pass it off as a minivan, but we know better.)

A few adjustments and a slow crawl out of the parking garage and we were en route to Melbourne!

Our first stop was a tiny cafe whose name I will withhold for this reason: Sarah and Luke had been to the cafe the day before and hidden 3 small items someplace in the shop for us to find and use as props for our movie. I feel this information might alarm the cafe.

I will say this: driving an 8-seater Imax down the narrow and winding lanes of Melbourne was a trip. Throw in the fact that I’m not used to driving on that side of the road, and it’s really a wild ride. Further complicating matters is the notorious hook turn, a cruel and unusual form of turn that requires one to pull all the way out into the left lane in order to make a right-hand turn. Apparently, this curious form of torture is unique to Melbourne.

Luckily, Alicia was a superb navigator, and everyone else was calm and patient. My relief upon finding a parking garage was overwhelming.

We walked to the small cafe, ordered up some flat whites, and poked around in the back room until we found a small envelope tucked between the pages of a book. We then headed on to Operator 25, a tasty little joint a few turns away from the cafe, to discuss our movie, the props (a ring, a map, a Save-the-Date), and our plans for the evening. All this I did over poached egg with avocado on sourdough bread. It was marvelous.

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Opening our envelope of props — we had to involve these somehow in our movie.

Our next stop was our Air BnB, which we weren’t exactly sure how to get to as the road was closed off due to construction. After some navigating, parking in the garage, and removing a key from a parked bicycle, we made it upstairs into a tiny flat with two bedrooms.

Naps were in order (Melbourne is a mere 3 hours ahead of Manila, but flying is exhausting), especially since we planned on going out that evening to celebrate Halloween a bit early.

The six of us went as a random assortment of characters from Parks and Rec, which may have gone unnoticed by the locals. We met up with Rosie’s friend Caro at a – cheese lovers, prepare yourselves – mozzarella bar and pizza joint called D.O.C. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. We ordered a cheese sampler, which appeared in the form of 3 creamy white balls of mozzarella: smoked, mild, and amazing.

From there, we made our way to the heart of the town and settled on a bar called The Rum Diary, where Carl attempted to order a glass of whisky with no luck.

I hunkered down with a $20 dark and stormy, which was so ginger-spicy it made my eyes water, but at $20, it was not to be wasted.

I’d like to tell you that we partied hard in Melbourne, that we did more than wave to the Freddie Mercury lookalike dancing along to a cover band decked out in animal suits. Alas, we were exhausted.

Besides, we had a 3-hour ride to the Grampians the next day. I couldn’t wait.

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Parks and Recreation: Down Under edition.

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