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Chugging along on a boat in Hong Kong harbour is an odd place to get intrigued by the architecture of a train station in Melbourne, but it happened. The weather was miserable. Neil, an old friend from our days in Hong Kong, had seized on the excuse of visitors to gather a few friends, drink some gin and tonics, and gab.

One of Neil’s British buddies had slipped away that afternoon from a high pressure job as managing director of a substantial HK based corporation.  His company had just purchased the business that supplied the roof of Southern Cross Station. He talked of the architecture in awe inspiring terms. “The station is the roof,” he said.

The original train station was called Batman’s Hill (after John Batman, one of founders of Melbourne). It was later changed to Spencer Street Station. In 1856 it became the Melbourne terminus of Victorian railways, linking the City to Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia. The great international Exhibition of 1888 put Melbourne and Spencer Street on the map. At that time, the Railway Administrative Building was the largest office building in Melbourne.

Construction began on replacement for Spencer Street Station in October 2002. It was finished in time for the 2006 Commonwealth Games. Not without major headaches, of course. It fell far behind schedule and went way over budget. It was branded by one politician as a “world class mess.” The construction did take place around an operational rail interchange of some magnitude, handling 60,000 commuters every single day.

The distinctive, giant wave-shaped roof was designed by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, who has had his hand in some other interesting structures- The Thermae Bath Spa in Bath, the National Space Center, the Eden Project. Inside Spencer, now called Southern Cross, you look down at a maze of tracks. The trains are over-sized versions of the electric train sets of childhood, mechanical puppets in mesmerizing motion.

Flinders Street Station offers a homey contrast to the spectacle of Southern Cross. It is a well-loved landmark, built in glowing yellow stone, adorned with clocks indicating the departure times on each line. It was the result of a world-wide design competition held in 1899. First prize went to two railway employees, whose design included a giant dome and clock tower. Despite its mammoth size, it has a cozy appeal. Very Victorian.

It is the central railway station of the suburban rail network, right in the heart of the City. Each day, over 100,000 people thread their way through the turnstiles and descend to the platforms. Outside, friends meet up “under the clocks” to coordinate their plans for the evening. The building has a ballroom tucked away somewhere.  Unfortunately, it is no longer in use.

Needless to say, the weather and years of heavy use have taken a toll and it has recently undergone significant and costly redevelopment, cleaning and repair. Worth every penny. Despite the increasing numbers of cars on the road and increasing frustration with the overcrowded conditions on commuter lines, Melburnians love their trains.

They make extended suburban living possible, the little house with the roses in the backyard miles (kilometers) away from the centre of the city. The place to putter, the place to call home.

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I probably wouldn’t mention it if we happened to strike up a conversation in the checkout line of a supermarket, but I will admit, if pressed, to being directionally challenged. Perhaps it is an inherited trait. It would be nice to blame somebody, and it occurs to me that one of my ancestors may be at fault. The one who led the covered wagons into the Great Salt Lake. Whoops!

The fact that I was once employed as a location scout in Hollywood land may strike some of you as puzzling, perhaps even perverse. Finding the locations wasn’t difficult; it was finding my way back that was hard. The art director of one show, who seemed to be alternately amused and annoyed by our outings, coined the term dipsy doodle to describe my circuitous navigation. I would approach each address as if I had to circle it a few times to get there. It was my landing pattern.

After each dipsy doodle trip with the director and producer, I would inevitably consult Thomas Brothers, the bible of LA map books, to find the best way of getting the cast and crew to each location without getting lost. Then I would put up signs. Usually, this worked out well. On one memorable occasion, it didn’t. Thomas Brothers showed a bridge which no longer existed. There was a late start to shooting that particular day and tempers were frayed. Surprisingly, I was not fired. Then. I was fired later. Twice.

Considering my history and the challenge of driving on the wrong side of the road in a very spread-out city with frighteningly complex round abouts, it should come as no surprise that the letters GPS impinged upon my brain. It seemed so simple– eyes in the sky. Some little device sitting on the windshield that would show me the route and say– “turn here, now.”

Think of my dismay, then, when I picked up the morning paper and read about a woman stranded in the bush. She was travelling to Peterborough on the south-west coast when her GPS directed her down a gravel road in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. Fortunately, she had a phone.

Constable Dance found her in heavy bushland two hours later. She was “visibly distraught.” The only explanation seems to be that it was, in fact, the most direct route. The constable suggested that if she wanted to keep her GPS, she should consider traveling by tractor or motorbike rather than a Toyota Corolla.

Despite the warning, I succumbed. I made my way down to “Johnny Appleseed” on St. Kilda road and spent a half hour being seduced by the idea of actually driving somewhere in Melbourne without having to worry about getting lost. And it’s amazing. It works! Even when I blow it, the Garmin happily recalculates and sets me on my way once again.

It even seems to learn. When I deliberately chose a different way home rather than the shortest route, the Nuvi only tried to steer me the other way once. The next time it seemed to accept that I must have some reason to take the scenic route.

There is no hint of sarcasm in the modulated, female voice. She remains calm and patient and helpful, even when she is hastily recalculating after the operator has made another egregious error.  Now, if only she could drive.


The Moonee Ponds public library is just past Queen’s Park, right before you reach the shopping on Puckle. I’m sure you’ll be delighted to know that Puckle Street has been around for ages; it was apparently named after Mr. Puckle the merchant, not the minister, but I digress. I had no reason whatsoever to go into the library, except that buildings full of books always make me feel at home.

The stack of books by my bed has at least a dozen unread titles. Most of them came with the rest of our household goods in a large, steel container. I knew from a previous visit that books were very expensive down under, so I packed up all the ones I hadn’t read and some I had. Others have since been sent to me by family members (such as my sister) and friends who have no idea when they hit the Amazon web site what the shipping cost will be.

From the architecture, I would guess the library dates from the fifties. It is adjecent to the police station and the darkened interior makes it just about as inviting.  Once inside, there are open stacks, user-friendly computers and helpful librarians, all the accoutrements of a good public library.

I emerged with three books. Whatever else the selection says about me, it least it shows I have eclectic taste: “Hydroponics for Everyone,” “Moghul Microwave,” and “The Dog Fence.” How could one resist a book with a title like that? It is by James Woodford, who wrote “The Secret Life of Wombats.”

The fence itself is nothing short of extraordinary. At 5400 kilmeters (aproximatey 3355 miles) it is one of the longest manmade structures on Earth. It cuts across part of three states in the southeast quadrant of Australia, across some of the most remote, inhospitable land imaginable. Its purpose is simply to keep dingoes away from sheep.

In February, 2002, James Woodford started out on a journey from one end (on the Southern Ocean) to the other (in Queensland). He got to know many of the men responsible for its maintenance as well as the “pastoralists” (ranchers) with the sheep and cattle. He slept out most nights, haunted by the ghosts of early explorers who passed through the same lands on their journeys of discovery.

The fence was built during both world wars, the Depression and several droughts. No single individual or agency conceived of it. Rather, it evolved from many other fences in response to the farmers’ needs. All nature of animals, relentless weather and sheer gravity conspire against it. The author calls it an ecological version of the Berlin Wall comparable in size to the Great Wall of China.

Most Australians have no idea that it exists.

Archeologist and anthropologist Scott Crane writes: “The fence… is a great unseen and unrecognized symbol of the Australian psyche and landscape–separating the wild from the tamed–desert from pastoral and, in its remoter parts, the first from the third world of Australia.

It was a major detour away from the books by my side of the bed. Night by night, Woodford took me on a journey through barren, fascinating terrain, fierce familes, nuclear test sites, great salt lakes and “gibber” plains.

What comes across most strongly is the sheer, god-forsaken emptiness of it all. And the tenuousness of human existence in such a land. The obstinate idea of the fence. I know where my sympathies lie.

I’m with the dingo.


I hate to have to break the news, but you are about to witness the end of an Australian wine glut. Thanks to the never ending drought and other vagaries of the weather, years of bargain basement wine prices are drawing to a close. Australia’s most famous wine, Penfolds Grange, has just been released at the staggering price of $500 a bottle. Mind you, it is five years old.

Last Sunday, my wife and I joined about twenty others on a tour organized by the wine club at University House. Our destination was the Mornington Peninsula, home to about fifty wineries. The weather was dismal, but every so often the clouds would clear and the lovely rolling hills revealed themselves. When the sun finally broke through at the second winery on our tour, the view of the bay was breathtaking.

Our first visit was to one of the more successful wineries on the peninsula– T Gallant. Their speciality is white wine, pinot grigio and pinot gris, but I fell for their Shiraz. After running the gamut of their selections, we sat down to lunch on their patio– Italian pizza, salad, and more wine, of course. Then it was back on the bus to hit yet another vineyard.   It was a rough avocation, but somebody had to do it. By the end of the afternoon, we were acting like discriminating tasters, sipping and spitting our way from white to red and on to dessert wines.

Cleanskin wines were introduced in the early 2000’s as a way of dealing with oversupply and poor sales. Initially, cleanskins (bottles without labels) were sold by the case through supermarkets. Then a cachet for cleanskins developed, and wines began to be marketed  by the bottle with generic labels, indicating the type of grape and the region only. We have had some fine cleanskin wines, but the wealth of choice here has had an odd result. We have been rediscovering our taste buds; we are buying more expensive wines.

The grand old man of wine reviewing in Australia is a man named James Halliday. The very first winery we visited here was one that he had a hand in starting– Coldstream Hills. While I was out soaking up the sun and admiring the view, my wife was busy stocking our wine “closet.” The 10th anniversary of Halliday’s Australian Wine Companion, the bible of the business, weighs in at a little under a kilo. It’s a bargain. There are profiles of 2176 wineries and some 6405 wines.

I read somewhere that about 40% of the wineries here are losing money, but that may be about to change.   Unfortunately, some small wineries will go under.  But the big boys will stay solvent, and as the glut disappears, prices will rise.  An economist once told my non-drinking father that he was missing a great opportunity by not taking advantage of duty-free liquor.  By that logic, you should drink up now. There is currently enough Aussie wine or everyone on the planet to have a glass. There may not be enough water, but there is plenty of wine.  Have at it.

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