2. Melbourne

I left San Francisco on Monday night, and arrived in Australia on Wednesday afternoon, a trip of over 10,000 km, flying at an average altitude over 10,000 m. No matter how many flights I take, I still find the experience of flying to be exhilarating. Crossing a large body of water is always particularly impressive, but there was something truly magical about leaving the far West coast of North America and landing safely on the East coast of Australia, with almost no air time over land. Satellites  and computers have obviously simplified navigation, but it’s still sort of fantastic that any vehicle can travel so far and arrive at its destination with such precision.

Although Australia is a bit of a detour on my passage to India, I have long been talking about visiting my friends Arlen and Steph, and I decided that this year I would make it happen. Arlen is a good friend of mine from high school, but has been living in Melbourne for over 7 years now, and after spending a couple of weeks there, I think I’m beginning to appreciate why.

Upon arrival in Melbourne, I was bracing myself for some intense heat, but I was pleasantly surprised to walk out of the airport into sunny 17 degree weather. Aside from an unfortunate decline in the quality of Triple J (a once great radio station), Australia is much as I remembered it. The sun is still intense, the snakes and spiders are still dangerous, and everyone still speaks in a delightful argot, with many words shortened or streamlined (e.g. sunnies, swimmers, breakie, etc.) My last trip there, however, (almost 10 years ago), was mostly confined to Sydney, Australia’s premier city in terms of iconic sights and tourism. Although a fierce rivalry exists between the two, most Australians seem to feel, then as now, that Melbourne is the superior place to live.

Much like San Francisco, Melbourne is yet another city with great neighbourhoods, nice weather, friendly people, and overall good quality of life. In addition, however, it is also the most sports-focused city I’ve ever been to. On the day I arrived I had a bit of a wander around the central business district, and came across people walking, running, biking, rowing, skateboarding, and kite surfing. The Australian Open just finished, leaving heaps of tennis infrastructure in its wake, and the city was gearing up for the Formula 1 Grand Prix. Of the 18 teams in the Australian Football League (the most popular sport in Australia), 9 are based in Melbourne, with a 10th located in a nearby suburb! While in town, I managed to catch some live Ultimate Frisbee and could have spent a whole Sunday watching a one-day international cricket match. Finally, although I missed it by a few months, I think it’s worth noting that the entire country gets a national holiday for a horse race in November – the Melbourne Cup.

I was lucky enough to do a bit of cycling myself while I was in town (on a Devinci to boot, thanks to Arlen!). The bike lanes were definitely a bit wider and more numerous than they are in Toronto, with slightly better demarcation between lanes, and even a few physically separated ones, but for the most part, it was still bikes protecting parked cars on city streets. When it came to trails, however, the infrastructure was amazing. There is a fantastic network of multi-use paths that allow people to commute to work through the woods and along the Yarra river. Here’s a view of downtown, taken from a bridge over the river, with trails on either side:

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Melbourne is also an incredibly beautiful city in terms of architecture. I think I must have somehow missed all the less-than-spectacular neighbourhoods, because every area of the city I visited was mostly made up of Victorian-era heritage buildings. I am told these were mostly constructed during the gold rush and population boom of the 1880s, but they all seems to have weathered very well. The nicer suburbs are filled with houses made of ornate brick and lattice work, complete with covered porches and bay windows. There is also a rather charming tendency for buildings to be named, as if each were a manor home of some kind. The image below is far from the best example of the style, but it is apparently the only picture I thought to take.

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Melbourne is also known for its culture and cuisine, and indeed, bars, restaurants, cafes and coffee shops were everywhere. It’s more than just the quality of the food that makes the city stand out, however; it’s the fact that people are so intent on enjoying themselves. Wages are relatively high, and Melbournians spend a lot of time socializing and enjoying great food and drinks. Patios seemed to be perpetually filled with people, and a great brunch place we tried was pretty much full, despite the fact that it was Monday morning. Prices are definitely high compared to Canada, but taxes and tips are always included, which I think is a brilliant system.

On the downside, everything in Melbourne seems to sprawl to some extent, presumably because there is no shortage of land. The downtown core is the only part of the city that demonstrates much in the way of density, and it combines both crowds of office workers and hordes of tourists. Even downtown, however, there is an amazing system of pedestrian alleys and little shops tucked away behind the main streets. The photos below are from one such place, a very bohemian spot that Arlen and I stopped into called Captains of Industry, which combined some fantastic coffee with a proper barbershop (and possibly some tailoring services).

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I could have spent much more time in Melbourne that I did, but there was adventure to be found elsewhere in the country, and after a few days in the city, Arlen and I headed North.

3. Cairns

It wasn’t really part of the original plan, but in the mad rush to plan something, Arlen and I ended up booking a trip to Cairns to go diving on the Great Barrier Reef. I didn’t make it up there last time I was in Australia, and it seemed like a shame to let the opportunity pass me by twice. I’m happy to say, it ended up being an awesome choice. All in all, I think it was one of the best tourist experiences I’ve ever had, and really the only thing I can think of in terms of wildlife viewing that compares to being on safari in Africa.

Cairns (basically unpronounceable by me, but something like “Caans”) is one of Australia’s great northern outposts. Originally a mining town, Cairns is now all about tourism, primarily because it makes an excellent launching point for trips to the reef.

On the day we arrived, the temperature was about 34 degrees, which isn’t all that bad, but the humidity was out of control. Just walking across town to the dive shop was about all we could manage until the sun went down. Fortunately, our plan was to set out early the next morning on a 3 day live-aboard dive trip. Once we got out of port, the weather was perfect.

We actually got incredibly lucky with the timing. Queensland recently got hammered with cyclones. If we’d chosen a different departure point, we might have had to cancel. If we’d been a week earlier, the water would have been totally murky. As it was, I couldn’t imagine the water being any clearer, with something like 20m visibility.

I’d only gone scuba diving once before in my life, in Mexico, and that didn’t exactly involve any real training, so I decided I would do it right this time. The typical certification course through PADI takes 5 days. Fortunately, I was able to do the classroom and pool portions in Toronto before leaving Canada, and was therefore able to jump right into the training dives from the first day on the boat.

We ended up booking with a company called Pro Dive, and they were truly professional from top to bottom. There were 30 divers on the boat, about half of whom were already certified (including a group of four who’d been referred from another company, whose boat had crashed into the reef the day before they were supposed to set out). There were also six crew members, including the captain, a dive master, two instructors, and Donnie, the Scottish cook (an oxymoron, I know). The boat easily accommodated all of us with two outer decks, a spacious mess area, and cabins below.

The trip involved 9 dives over the three days, including a night dive, plus two more for those already certified. Running an operation on that scale requires some serious organization, and the crew was all over it. They transitioned seamlessly from teaching to prepping to diving to cleaning up. Every time we came in from the water, Donnie had a hearty meal prepared for us, and he even managed to bake something like two cakes per day.

The diving itself was absolutely amazing. I didn’t really know what to expect, but the combination of the coral and the aquatic life was simply mind blowing. I guess I was mostly imagining scores of tropical fish, but what I hadn’t counted on was how personal the whole thing would feel. It was certainly cool swimming with the reef sharks, rays, and turtles, but the best parts were things like the little Nemos, which just hang out in their anemone, always to be found in the same place.

The night dive was the only one which felt a little out of control. Someone had trouble equalizing on the way down, and for a while it wasn’t totally clear what was happening, but we eventually got it sorted out. We each had a flashlight to explore the space around us, but on the way back to the boat, we shut them all off, leaving only the light of the glowsticks on our tanks.

Unfortunately I didn’t have a camera for the night dive, but here’s a sampling of photos from the last day.

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