Back in Backpack: Melbourne & Tasmania

It’s been a good couple of weeks being mostly sedentary, but now I’m back on the road. I restocked my iPod with all sorts of new punk-rock tunes courtesy of Kelvin and hopped on the Greyhound overnight to Melbourne.

Going between these two towns is a sea change. Melbourne has just over 4 million inhabitants and prides itself on being the best city in Australia. Tall skyscrapers dot the downtown landscape, surrounded by cool, unique neighborhoods. It’s obsessed with sports as evidenced by its playing host to the season-opening Formula 1 GP and the Australian Open tennis. It has a cricket ground, the MCG, that holds over 100,000 people – to watch cricket!

I took my time to wander around the city and explore the downtown area as well as some of the more bohemian neighborhoods like St Kilda and Fitzroy. There’s little alleys everywhere packed with small bars, coffeehouses, galleries, unique stores, and generally just crazy interesting looking people. I spent a good amount of time as a sidewalk tourist, enjoying a drink while observing all these cool folks. The people here (like everywhere in Australia) are so friendly that it was never long before I would be caught in conversation or invited to whatever party happened to be going on that night.

There was one excursion from Melbourne that interested me particularly, and it didn’t let me down. Near the city is an island called Phillip Island, home to a 20,000 strong colony of penguins. They’re called Little Penguins and are the smallest penguin species, no more than 30 centimeters tall. They nest here and at dusk emerge from the ocean, waddle across the beach, and seek out their screaming young in the dunes. It’s an incredible spectacle, and stands and walkways have been built, hovering over the ground, from where you can follow the penguins all the way into the dunes. It’s endearing to see them hesitate at first, as the sun is still setting, taking a few steps onto the beach before looking around, realizing noone has followed, and racing back into the safety of the waves. Eventually they all come out and there are thousands of penguins running along the beach, plodding through the dunes, looking for their nest. They make a lot of noise and boy, they smell bad.

Melbourne got better and better every day and night and as I took my still-drunk self onto the plane to Tasmania on Friday morning, I realized that my timing had been way off. I was leaving this big bustling city to spend the weekend in the quiet coastal town of Hobart. At the time I hadn’t expected Hobart to be as soulcrushingly boring as it turned out to be, otherwise I would have regretted this decision a lot more. Seriously, Hobart has 200,000 inhabitants and is a state capital, but it’s so nondescript that three times I managed to walk straight through the heart of the city center without noticing. And if you want to grab something to eat after 8pm, you better like Subway, because that’s the only place still open at that time.

Thankfully the excursions you can get up to in Tasmania more than make up for it. I visited Wineglass Bay, considered to be one of the Top 10 beaches in the world, and it was spectacularly beautiful. I cuddled a wild walibi (I seem to get along well with them) and even spotted an echidna. The next day I visited the Port Arthur Penitentiary, which functioned as a prison between 1830 and 1871, until it was abandoned and ravaged by fires in 1897. The ruins still remain, some parts have been restored, and it gives an incredible insight in the prison life of the 19th century.

Tasmania was at that time a colony separate from Australia, and as many convicts were shipped to this island as to the rest of the country put together. Today, 70% of all Tasmanian inhabitants are direct descendants from a prisoner. Port Arthur is where the worst of the worst got sent for rehabilitation. The ‘Separate Prison’ was an experiment in isolation, keeping prisoners locked up by themselves 23 hours a day, forbidden to speak, addressed only by a number, and forced to wear hoods when in the presence of other prisoners. Even the exercise yard and chapel were isolated. When a prisoner would break one of the 200+ rules, they could be sentenced to spend time in the ‘Dark Room’ – a 2×3 meter cell with meter-thick walls and 4 huge doors, blocking out all light and sound. It’s total sensory deprivation in there, and I couldn’t even last a minute, let alone the 72 hours that prisoners would have had to endure.

Port Arthur is a tragic place that doesn’t shy away from its past, except for one part of it. Ten years ago a lunatic massacred 35 people on this site, mostly in the cafe and gift shop, in the course of little more than ten minutes. There is a memorial for the victims, but generally it is not a subject to be discussed in this small community. Knowing about it adds another layer of pain and tragedy to this already haunted place.

I’m back in Melbourne for just under 48 hours, enough to meet up with some of the people that I’ve met here last week. Thursday I take the overnight bus back to Adelaide, to spend Christmas with Kelvin, Lia, and their families. Their X-mas traditions appear to be a) drinking a lot, b) eating a lot, and c) laughing a lot. I think I can handle that!

Oh and I almost forgot: Melbourne has one of the coolest Visual Arts museums I’ve ever been to! They had an exhibit dedicated to the work of Walt Disney, showing concept art, sketches, explorations, as well as footage from movies like Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. It was fun to see how this was enjoyed equally by all age groups. They also had a great Bill Viola short called ‘The Raft’, and the best visual installation I have ever seen: ‘You and I, Horizontal II’ by Anthony McCall. Two thin, broad lines of light are projected on a screen in a pitch black room filled with smoke. You can interact with the lines, shaping the outcome on the screen as well as in the room itself. It’s tricky to explain so I’ve looked up a (somewhat crappy, sorry) video on YouTube¬†here.

Here are, as usual, some photos:

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