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Melbourne is a cycling city. That was one of the many things that attracted me to moving here. I am a born-again enthusiast of two wheel flight. About a year and a half ago, I split from the cycling church of my youth into a splinter group of of heretics–recumbent and trike riders. Why? Well, aches and pains had a lot to do with it. It made a lot of sense to me to look at the sky instead of the ground. I toyed with the idea of a trike, but I wanted to ride on roads as well as bike paths and trikes seemed to take up too much room. We bought a tandem first. I invested in my own recumbent about six months before the move.

The weekend before last I found a group of fellow heretics. They are part of the OZHPV group (Australian Human Powered Vehicle). They have social rides every Sunday. Last night they met downtown in front of the State Library in an attempt to drum up interest for an upcoming event– this weekend’s cycling challenge at Casey Fields in Cranbourne. There will be a concours d’elegance, a drag race, sprint, timetrial, a one hour roadrace, a twin slalom and a “shopping race.”

The British are tinkerers. It is hard to imagine the industrial revolution without the inventions that came out of Great Britain. In this corner of the commonwealth, one of the spin offs of that sensibility has been the creation of self-propelled machines the likes of which I have never seen before. Tandems, recumbents, ingenious folding trikes. Most of the members of the group build their own two, three and four wheelers.

Last night I looked down at one little grasshopper-colored bike and asked the owner where it came from. He said it was a Japanese design, made in Taiwan, but he had changed almost everything from the steering to the seat. The leader of Sunday’s spontaneous rides took one look at my bike and suggested I switch to underseat steering. He would help me, he said. No problem. They are cycle recyclers, inventive and fun. They are not the lycra set, determined to huff and puff their way to the front of the pack. They are laid back and relaxed, taking in the scenery, chatting and dreaming up new and better designs for the most efficient vehicle ever built.

Maybe it is time the heretics took over the church.

On the scale of human tragedies in this part of the world, this one hardly registers.  Three people lost their lives when the driver of a semi smashed into three cars in the Burnley tunnel on Friday morning.  Two of the victims were young, one was a champion cyclist.  The third man to lose his life was in his early fifties.  He was from Essendon.

Imagining the prospect of perishing is difficult enough, but dying in a fiery crash in a dark tunnel ranks near the top of my list of fatality fears.  I have been through that tunnel several times.  On one occasion, when I forgot to bring along the address of our dinner engagement and didn’t realize it until the last minute, I managed to drive through that tunnel under the Yarra River three times within one hour.

Burnley is over three kilometers long.  It connects two major freeways east and west.  It carries 150,00 cars a day.  And trucks.  Don’t forget the trucks.  The conflagration that trapped Olympic cyclist Damian McDonald last Friday morning was triggered when a truck driver was forced to pull his semi into the left-hand lane because of a blown tire.  Three cars and two trucks collided when traffic tried to merge around the stopped semi.

There are no breakdown lanes or bays in the tunnel.  As the flames and smoke billowed out, drivers abandoned their cars and fled on foot. The closing of the tunnel created traffic chaos.  Hands are being wrung;  experts are being quoted in the local paper suggesting that the speed limits are too high and that the tunnel should have a breakdown lane.

I was surprised to see drivers changing lanes within the tunnel.  Try that in New York City and you get shot.   Burnley is supposed to reopen tomorrow, and a spokeswoman for the tunnel’s owner assures us it will be safe.  Nothing has changed.  How is that possible?

I worry about that phrase. It probably stems from memories of my first days in California, when we discovered to our dismay that the nephew of the landlord was actually living in the garage behind the modest bungalow we had rented in Pacific Palisades. He was a surfer, and he seemed to embody a contradictory stance. He was what I would call an aggressive slacker. His favorite phrase was “no problem.” What it meant was: it’s not my problem.
The night before we were to move into our current abode here in Melbourne, my wife and I arranged to meet the rental agent for a walk through. We discovered that the power had not been switched on. I believed that would make it impossible to get the garage door up, which would make difficulties for the movers.  The agent was under the impression that I had taken care of the matter, while I believed that she was handling it. It was my first Australian encounter with the mentality I associate with our surfer in Los Angeles. No worries. Not my problem.

There is a good interpretation of the phrase and I suspect that most Australians use it that way. Meaning, I’ll take care of it. It is not your problem. I stayed up late the other night and caught a wonderful movie called “Mr. Reliable.” It came out ten years ago and is called “My Entire Life” in the US. It is based on an incident that happened in a suburb of Sydney during a heat wave in December, 1968.

Wally Mellish, (recently released from prison) is living with his girlfriend and her baby in a shack in what looks to be an industrial suburb, Glenfield. Beryl suggests that the place (which is almost empty) could use some ornamentation. Wally heads to the junkyard and steals some Jaguar ornaments. This, of course, leads to a visit from the local cops, and Wally getting angry when one of them kicks a hole in his door. He lets off a blast with a sawed-off shotgun and this leads to the biggest hostage crisis in Australian history.

Unlike “Dog Day Afternoon,” the story is played for humor and pathos. Wally is not a psycho. During most of the crisis, he keeps one step ahead of the police and behaves better than most of them. There is a lot of care taken with establishing the time and place and the group psychology that ends up playing such a big role in the drama. What struck me was how very Australian it felt. One of the reporters keeps saying, in fact, that in any other country they just would have blown him away. There was no doubt in my mind that he would not have survived in the United States. Maybe Canada.

Wally embodies the “No worries” character. He is worried, of course.  He is not an idiot.  But he reassures Beryl that despite being surrounded by a SWAT team, with no escape possible, everything is going to be all right. He will take care of it. And he does.

There is a nice, neat hole punched through my Florida driver’s license now. Bottom right hand corner. That license, like the proverbial parrot of Monty Python fame, is expired, defunct, no longer valid. The upside of this is that I was able to get a permit to drive in the state of Victoria without doing any tests whatsoever. I did not have to demonstrate my ability to navigate a vehicle on what I consider the “wrong” side of the road or explain the finer points of the infamous “hook” turn. The downside is that the picture makes me look older (for some reason) and goofy.

This is not the first time I have driven on the “wrong” side of the road. I went to film school in London some forty years ago where I became infatuated with an adorable little car called a Super Seven. It was manufactured by Lotus and built from a kit. This one had even been raced on occasion. For some reason the builder (an amateur mechanic and racer) had neglected to install the windshield wipers. That was not to blame for my mishap, however.

One night, after hoisting a few too many pints with some Irish friends, I took a suburban corner a little too fast and actually hopped the kerb. The couple out for a stroll must have been a little disturbed to see a yellow race car following them up the sidewalk, but they took it very well. They ran back and asked me if I was all right.

Despite the excellent public transportation system, we owned two cars during our stay in Hong Kong. The first had a leaky sun roof and ended up rotting from the inside out one summer when I was in Nova Scotia. It sat too long in the sun and sprouted strange life forms. The other was an ancient (by Hong Kong standards) Daihatsu with fuel injection. It was perfect because it was so small and nimble. I loved driving it but there was no where to go.

On one of my first forays out in the City, I turned into the right (wrong) side of the road. Fortunately, there was a bus stop 100 metres from our apartment complex. I can still see the horrified faces of the commuters. They raised their hands in unison and pointed left in exaggerated pantomime. I got the picture and switched lanes. Others were not so lucky. One night I woke to the sound of a crash. An inebriated gweilo (white foreign devil) was driving home on the wrong side of the road. Fortunately, both the drivers were in Mercedes and neither was injured.

Driving down under has presented certain problems. When I was out house hunting in a rented car, I turned the wrong way into a one-way street. I frequently encounter difficulties negotiating busy round abouts. Some of them have stop lights, dividing the circumference into thirds. I seem to lose my way with alarming regularity despite downloading maps to my destination. I have yet to do the infamous “hook” turn that involves going into the far left lane to make a right hand turn.

And the car itself seems to trip me up. The gear shift is on the “wrong” side. I automatically hit the wand for the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal. At least the pedals are in the right position on the floor. We have purchased a vehicle which can, in theory, be driven off road. That may be the safest place for me to be.

Despite the fact that our rented residence has a very minimal garden, it needs water (during the two hours of the two days we are allowed to water). My wife insisted that it also required mulch and the dispensation of hard-earned Australian dollars (see previous post) at the local nursery, which seems to do a fantastic business despite the drought, thank you very much. I was the designated pack animal for the big bags of mulch and nicely polished black and white rocks which are part of the garden decor. At the nursery, Poyntons of Essendon, I noticed a small sign: Fall is Here! My God, I thought, Easter is still a month away.

Being down under does a number on one’s notion of seasons. We arrived shortly after the New Year to a heat wave. It was their equivalent of high summer, after all. There were a few days during that first month when the afternoon sun was absolutely oppressive. On Junuary 16th it got up to 105 degees Fahrenheit, but it felt like 125. It did not take long to discover that summer is not necessarily synonymous with shorts and T shirts. The weather of one day could fly through all four seasons without stopping for lunch.

Today is Labour Day in Victoria. Easter is in the fall. Christmas is in summer. June and July will bring in the dark days of winter, which are affected by the low latitude. In the dead of winter, there are only nine hours of sunshine, thirteen to fourteen in summer.

The idea of antipodal points comes to us from the Greeks, apparently. Each place on the planet had a correspondent point on the opposite side of the Earth. You just needed a good drill and a gift for languages. The British liked to think that Australia and New Zealand were their antipodes, but Auckland, New Zealand actually corresponds to Gibralter, and most of the north island of New Zealand corresponds to Spain.

Since most of the land masses on the planet are in the Northern Hemisphere, their antipodes are in the oceans. If we were to float the continent around to the other side, it would end up smack in the middle of the Atlantic. There’s plenty of room and I’m sure we would get more rain. Christmas would be in winter, once again.

They have funny money here in Australia.   The notes come in peculiar colors and they are very, very slippery.  As if to make up for the apparent flimsiness of the the bills, the coins range from the insubstantial five and ten cent pieces to the heavyweight hitters of the coin world– the one and two dollar coins.  The two dollar coin is like a small, brass-colored black hole in the monetary universe.  It is useful for tram tickets and parking, built like a tank.

The reason for the slipperiness of the notes is the material they are made of– polymer.  It is plastic money.  Australia was the first country to switch over completely to the durable stuff.  It lasts four times as long as paper money, is difficult to counterfeit, and it can be recycled.  So far, it Australia  has turned on sixteen countries to the advantages of plastic notes.

Australia changed over to decimal currency in 1963, and the “dollar” was chosen over 999 other submissions.  Smart choice.  A $100 note features the soprano, Damne Nellie Melba on the front and Sir John Monash, a soldier, engineer and administrator on the back.  I am pleased to say that there is a poet on the front of the $10 bill.  AB ‘Banjo’ Paterson is back to back with Dame Mary Gilmore, who was also a poet, among her many other accomplishments.

It is the fifties that concern us, however.  They are the bills dispensed by the ATM machines, the ones that seem to disappear so quickly that it is difficult to believe they were ever in the wallet.  The fifty is graced by David Unaipon (the first Aboriginal author to be published) and Edith Cowan (the first woman member of parliament.)   David was an inventor of note (the Leonardo of Australia);  Edith was a dedicated social worker and feminist.  These were people who defined their lives by deeds, not status or public relations.   Neither was slippery in the least.

Of the two heavyweight coins, the one dollar is larger in diameter, but less thick.  There are five kangaroos on one side, the ubiquitous Queen on the other.  The two dollar coin depicts an unnamed Aboriginal elder set against a background of the Southern Cross.   These two coins are mostly copper,  The lighter coins offer a window on the animal world.

The five cent coin depicts an echidna, a spiny ant-eater.  The ten cent coin shows us a male lyrebird and the twenty cent coin offers up the platypus.  The fifty cent coin shows us the Australian Coat of Arms, supported by a kangaroo and emu.

Burke & WillisRobert O’Hara Burke had a number of things going for him. He was Anglo-Irish gentry; he had been in the Austrian military; he had lived in Victoria for eight years. He was “tall, well made, with dark brown hair… a magnificent beard; he had fine, intelligent eyes, and a splendidly-formed head.” If you were looking for the right person to lead a dangerous, logistically-complex, and physically demanding expedition across Australia from south to north, what more could you ask for? Qualifications, character, suitability, perhaps? Let’s not be petty. We don’t expect that in astronauts or presidents, why explorers?

The whole thing started with another Irishman by the name of Ambrose Kyte who came to Melbourne as a young man “humble and objectless.” He did very well for himself in land speculation, and decided to offer a thousand pounds to help finance an expedition into the interior. The Philosophical Institute of Victoria agreed to raise the rest of the money, select the leader and outfit the expedition.

Camels had recently been introduced into the American west, and it was decided that ‘ships of the desert’ would be ideal for crossing the Australian Sahara, so camels were imported. The disaster in the making was assembled in Royal Park, home of the Melbourne zoo. It is adjacent to University College, our first home base in Melbourne.
The purpose of the expedition was exploratory, scientific and a little vague. Burke and young Wills (the surveyor of the company) were to attempt to explore the country between Cooper’s Creek and the Gulf of Carpenteria (keeping an eye out for another explorer by the name of Leichhardt who had gone missing in 1848.) They were to cross 1700 miles of extremely inhospitable territory. And come home again.


Royal Park was then on the outskirts of Melbourne, “practically in a state of nature.” Burke hoped that it would help accustom his men to bush life. The nineteen men had relatively modest provisions for a journey that could take two years. They were well supplied with equipment, however, which included an oak table. Their goods weighed at least 21 tons.

On August 20, the explorers headed out in some disarray, providing live entertainment to thousands of spectators from the City. Their first stop was at Queen’s Park in Essendon, a five minute walk from our front door. One of the wagons broke down on the way and at dusk a horse broke loose and ran away. It was an omen of things to come.

It was a long, arduous, and ultimately disastrous journey. After making a series of terrible decisions, Burke left Cooper’s creek in central Australia at the hottest time of the year with three companions, six camels and one horse. Only one man made it back alive.

There is a very good account of the expedition on the Wikepedia site as well as at: A re-enactment of the tragic tale was made in 1985. The scenery is stunning.

When you move to a new city in a new land, you don’t arrive with any prejudices about the myriad of communities which make up the place. Melbourne is very spread out. With its 8,800 square kilometres, it is twice the size of Sydney. Despite a tiny central district, greater Melbourne eats up more land than London. The burbs spread in every direction for kilometers and kilometers, serviced by an extensive train system. Most of the homes in the older suburbs are quite small, but everyone who settled here wanted to have his own roses, his own backyard and his own garage. For 3.2 million people, that takes a lot of land.

You can get a strange look when you say you are living in Essendon. Everyone seems to think it is far away, although it is only 9 kms north of the main station, a twenty minute train ride. From where we live, the tram is more convenient, but it takes twice as long and can be held up by heavy traffic. Two weeks ago, my daughter’s tram was hit by a car, which was being driven somewhat erratically, according to her firsthand report. Perhaps the driver was on drugs. Drugs might be another reason for the strange look when you admit you live in Essendon.

A lurid story was splashed across the newspaper the other day about an underworld drug dealer who had apparently ordered the deaths of at least ten rivals. He has been behind bars for the last two years, but he just pled guilty to three of the murders and been sentenced. He may get out of prison before he dies. His name is Carl Williams.

In 1999, an amphetamine dealer by the name of Jason Moran shot Carl in the stomach. They were rivals and there had been some disagreement about finances. Jason thought that the shooting would give Carl a message that the Moran gang was not to be trifled with.

Instead, the baby-faced Carl decided to wipe out Jason’s gang. When you read through the long, dismal background of the murders, investigation, etc., it slowly seeps in that much of this sordid story took place in our area. The children of both drug dealers were enrolled in the same private school in Essendon. In one desperate attempt to bring Jason out into the open, William’s wife picked a fight with her counterpart out in front of the school. It didn’t work. When Carl’s hired killers finally caught up with Jason, the murder occurred at a football practice field in Essendon North.

Our placid-looking suburb would appear to belong to the pages of Miami Vice. Mind you, the gangland slayings over the last eight years don’t put Melbourne on the world’s murder map. In 2003, there were 302 murders in all of Australia. 12,658 in the United States. This country does have a much smaller population, but you can do the math. In terms of personal safety, we’re in Disneyland here.

Essendon is also known for its airport, its football club and its big box stores. It was the launching point for the Victorian Exploring Expedition– the disastrous trek across the Australian outback now known by the names of its ill-fated leaders, Burke and Wills. More about that in the next post.

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