Imagine crossing hemispheres, gaining five and a half hours and landing in a city with exactly the same weather that you left behind. It lends itself to a strange sort of jet lag.
It is raining in Bangalore’s winter when I leave and it is raining when I land in Melbourne, that same windy, chilly, pitter-patter. Except this is summer and, occasionally, the sun comes out and makes you sweat under your jacket. Almost as soon as you tuck it away, the wind starts to sting. This is really a home away from home.
I’m received at the airport by a childhood friend, Dhananjay, who I haven’t seen in 10 years. He tells me that the chill is because of the southerly winds that swirl into Melbourne from the Antarctic Ocean. Later that evening, it turns really stuffy and he talks about the northerly winds that rush in from the interior. Nobody seems to have given these winds any sort of timetable. They just gush in and out in merry chaos.
All this leads to Melbourne’s notoriously fickle atmospheric conditions, where the clouds, sun and winds play a perpetual game of hide-and-seek. Weathermen here must get the egg-in-the-face feeling every day? “Strangely, no,” says Dhananjay. “The predictions are usually accurate. It’s quite a marvel they’ve devised a system to track this weather pattern.”
The forecast systems come in particularly handy with reference to the country’s premier sporting venue, the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Travelling teams have often arrived in the city wondering whether they will get any play. Yet, when the forecast is for sunshine, it rarely turns out otherwise.
At Dhananjay’s apartment in Clayton, a Melbourne suburb, we discuss whether the modern Australian cricket side would have beaten the legendary West Indian side of the 1970s and the 1980s. It’s an argument picked up from the last time we’d met and, after several animated hours, we come to the same unanimous conclusion: Surely not.
For a city we in India associate only with cricket, though, Melbourne seems curiously untouched by the sport. First, there is just too much space and too few people—as could be expected in a land five times the size of India, with just a fraction of its population—but, more strangely, no one is swinging a bat or throwing a ball in any of the city’s many fields and parks.
“You may find a few of them on the beach,” says Dhananjay, “but the thing with these Melbournians is that they usually don’t play for fun. They like to play as long as it’s a serious and organized game. If I want someone to get their bat and knock about, they’re not interested. If you want idle fun, go to the beach with a bat or ball. But fun matches are not the norm.”
His words come back when Anil Kumble makes his resounding “only one team is playing in the spirit of the game” statement after the Sydney Test. The promptness and pressure with which the country comes down on the home team emphasizes how dear it holds its sporting motto: Playing hard but playing fair. To Australia, it seems, the record 16th win means nothing simply because of the manner in which it was contrived.
The one thing Melbournians love more than sport (and drink—but more on that later) is to bet. At the imposing Crown Casino, one is likely to get lost amid the roulette wheels and slot machines. People sometimes spend a whole day here and, usually on the weekends, the nights as well. We hear a lot of celebrations inside but most of those walking out are glum. The manager smiles when we ask him the reason: “The bad part about winning is that you usually stay.”
We don’t, however, and head out to St Kilda beach. We arrive around 8pm and are told that we couldn’t have chosen a better time. “A little after sunset, fairy penguins make an appearance close to the rocks,” says James McAllister, a local who worked at the famous seaside St Kilda Pier Kiosk for five years before it burnt down in 2003. He lost his job then, and didn’t get it back when the kiosk was rebuilt in 2006, but continues to return once in a while to meet the penguins.
“I used to really like one of them and named her Simone,” he says. “She used to perch up on my hands when I was cooking. Sometimes she would sit on my lap. When an airplane passed by, she spread her wings and wanted to fly too. A lot of drunks come here in the evening and try to attack these penguins.”
A few penguins come ashore but hide under the rocks, probably scared by the sheer number of tourists. The only other wild creatures in evidence are water rats.
As we decide to grab a quick drink and dinner, we discover the concept of a “quick” drink is quite unknown here. This is a weekend and locals and tourists are guzzling beer. We sample Victoria Bitter, the local beer, before settling for James Boag, a Tasmanian variety. Nobody seems interested in Foster’s, a beer which I’ve always associated with Australia. I jokingly ask the waiter if he’s heard of Kingfisher. He points me to the beach.
It’s a vibrant part of St Kilda and discussions with locals invariably turn towards cricket. They talk fondly of Shane Warne, a Victorian who learnt his cricket at the St Kilda club next door, but also condemn him for his shenanigans. First impressions suggest that Australians don’t exactly appreciate in-your-face aggro; a bit of humility works wonders. It’s probably the reason why Sachin Tendulkar will always remain a revered figure here, as much for his cricketing exploits as his humility.
In the days that follow, I notice a surprisingly friendly tone. Isn’t this the country that intimidates visitors? The land where foreigners are given a hostile reception? Instead I notice an almost apologetic tone among the locals. There is usually a “sorry” thrown in between sentences even when no mistakes have been made. Lost in Federation Square, I have three people apologise to me for not being able to help out. Days later, as I come out of the MCG after India are hammered by 337 runs in the first Test, two little boys come up and say, “We’re sorry mate. All the best for the next one.”
How to get there:
Visas:From the Australian High Commission at Chanakyapuri, New Delhi, for Rs2,800. Set aside at least a week for processing.
Flights:Qantas offers flights from New Delhi and Mumbai to Melbourne. Current return economy fares are from Rs40,465 and Rs38,185, respectively, excluding taxes. Singapore Airlines connects Bangalore and Melbourne for fares starting from Rs65,000, plus taxes.
Where to stay:
The Melbourne Cricket Ground is located in the heart of the Central Business District and if cricket is your prime attraction, it makes sense to stay there. The Crown Towers (www.crowntowers.com.au) is a luxury hotel, located close to the CBD, with a spa, shopping and spectacular views of the city or the Port Phillip Bay. Room rates start at A$475 (about Rs16,000) per night. The Langham (www.langhamhotelmelbourne.com.au) is 30 minutes from the airport and has packages upwards of A$330. The Sofitel (www.sofitelmelbourne.com.au) is also close to the MCG. Rooms available for upwards of A$290.
Where to eat:
Australia is a melting pot of peoples and cuisines. So even as you look for the authentic Aussie experience, check out the wide selection of Asian restaurants at Little Bourke Street and the Vietnamese restaurants at Victoria Street, Richmond. Brunswick Street is a lively area with cafes, pubs and bars.
What to do:
When you aren’t watching cricket, visit the Crown Casino, the fabulous Rod Laver Arena, Federation Square, Healesville Sanctuary, the penguins at Phillip Island, Puffing Billy. Take a drive down the Great Ocean Road.
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