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Getting around

Part 3: Sydney, Melbourne

Map of Australia
01.01: KL -> Brisbane
02.01: Brisbane -> Sydney
03.01: Sydney
04.01: Sydney
05.01: Sydney -> Blue Mountains
06.01: Sydney -> Melbourne
07.01: Melbourne
08.01: Melbourne -> Yarra valley -> Healesville ->
09.01: Melbourne -> KL

05.01: Sydney -> Blue Mountains - > Sydney
Aspire hotel, Sydney
Weather: sunny, blue sky the whole day. No rain. Very hot in the blue mountains in the afternoon.

I wake up early at 7:10am and get ready. Shortly after 8am I'm at the meeting point in front of the Aaron hotel, where the driver of the tour to the Blue Mountains is waiting for me. It's a small bus, seating 18 tourists + the driver. The tour operator is OZ Trek (oztrek.com.au) and the tour costs AUD 55. This is the cheapest offer I found yesterday, all other tours cost more than that and even above AUD 100.

The driver explains what we will do today and I have an unpleasant surprise. According to the tour we should stop at the olympic site and also stop in a place where we will see a lot of wildlife. Well, we do not stop at the olympic site and do not stop in a wildlife park or place full of wildlife as implied by all those photos of animals on the brochure and written in the text. There is in fact another tour (offered by trueblue tours) which does make a stop at the Featherdale wildlife park (on the way to the Blue Mountains) and costs AUD 70. But the impression I got yesterday from the OZ Trek brochure was that we would stop also at a wildlife site and the tour would cost less. As the driver explains, the brochure actually has promised too much. Since I want to see koalas and kangaroos live before leaving Australia, I will now have to do a separate tour to a wildlife park.

Anyway, we spend the whole day in the Blue Mountains, visiting different places. Cool view of the Three Sisters rock formation and the valley beneath. Quite scenic place full of eucylipt trees, although it's debatable in my opinion why this place should be a UNESCO World Heritage site. As the driver explains, this is an area where people from Sydney retire.

We stop for lunch in a small town called Leura. I find out that it is possible to stay in the Blue Mountains, as there is lots of accomodation. There are also many walking trails. The only problem is the extreme heat and the fires which every now and then burn everything in the area.

Around 4:30pm we stop in a place which must be a national park or something similar. When I get out of the bus I feel an extreme heat wave, like being in an oven. Not sure if it me who is just tired and I am just imagining it, but it feels like perhaps 40C or more in this place. Incredibly hot and dry place, one spark and everything burns. We walk a bit and suddenly lying in the shadow behind the grass are two small grey kangaroos. They do not run away, are not afraid of humans. They are probably suffering from the heat.

I'm back in Sydney at 6pm. Since I need a flight to Melbourne for tomorrow, I start looking for a travel agency, but despite walking around a lot I can't find one until 7pm. So I have a dinner, then head back to the hotel. There I discover that it is quite easy to book cheap Australian flights in the Internet. All you have to do is go to the site of either Jetstar or Virgin Blue. I book a flight Sydney-Melbourne with Virgin Blue for tomorrow for AUD 128. Should have done that in Brisbane as well, instead of buying the ticket with Quantas in the travel agency.

06.01: Sydney -> Melbourne
Hotel Medina Executive branch, Melbourne. AUD 135 for a small apartment (they upgrade me for free from the studio) with everything, even a washing machine and a clothes dryer. Kitchen with fridge, oven and microwave unit, A/C, bathroom, elegantly furnished living room. This is the best place where I have stayed so far. Only problem is that the cable internet connection does not work, and even several calls to tech support do not solve the problem. Otherwise great room. No breakfast.
Weather: sunny, blue sky the whole day. Extremely strong sun. No rain, very hot (Sydney). In Melbourne it is still sunny with a spotless blue sky, but much more fresh and a bit windy. Great light and clean air.

I check out of the hotel at 10:50am, too late to catch the 11am ferry to the Taronga zoo. But even if I caught that ferry there probably would have been not enough time to visit the zoo and get back, because I still have to find a travel agency where to book a hotel in Melbourne, have some lunch, and be at the airport by 2pm.

So I walk around the Darling harbour area. There is a marina, an exhibition centre, a shopping mall with a food court and some attractions such as the Sydney acquarium and the Sydney wildlife centre, kind of a zoo. After some quick breakfast/lunch in a KFC restaurant I go to one travel agency I spotted, but they only offer expensive hotels and charge on top a 20% commission.

At 12pm I visit this Sydney wildlife centre (entry is AUD 30), where I get to see some koalas at close distance. Amazing cute animals, these would be the ideal pets to keep at home, if you had a supply of fresh eucylipt tree leaves.

At 12:35pm I'm done with the zoo and start looking for a place where to book a hotel room in Melbourne. I manage to find such a place 10 minutes later. It's a Flight Centre travel agency. For a moderate fee they book a hotel room in Melbourne for me. At 1pm I start walking back to the hotel. It's now very hot in Sydney - temperature is 32C and rising. The sun is unbelievably strong, and that is no wonder, as it is almost perpendicular and the sky is completely clear.

At 1:30pm I spot a tax stand in front of the Ibis hotel. I get into a taxi, go first to the Aspire hotel to fetch the bags and then drive to the airport. We're at the airport before 2pm. I check in (queue is very short), then proceed to the gate. The plane departs with 25 minutes of delay, because apparently there is a lot of air traffic in Sydney today. The Virgin Blue plane, a Boeing 737-800, is quite full. In-flight drinks and food are not free and have to purchased. Freezing A/C in the plane, passengers are wearing woolen jackets.

The plane lands in Melbourne with a small delay at 4:55pm. By the time I'm out of the airport it's 5:15pm and I wonder how to get to the hotel. There is the airport shuttle bus, which for AUD 16 brings you to some place in town from which you take a taxi to the final destination. To save time I take a taxi (AUD 50), which brings me to the hotel by 5:45pm. I check in and immediately after that get out for some exploration of Melbourne.

Melbourne is the most pleasant Australian city where I have been so far. The riverfront around the Yarra river is simply beautiful, with the promenade and all those cafes and restaurants along it. There is also a shopping mall every now and then. French style restaurants with small tables anc chairs outside. The staff in the restaurants is predominantly Asian (I noticed that already in Sydney).

I continue walking eastwards along the river until Federation square, where I cross the bridge and go to Federation square. There is a demonstration against the war of Israel in the Gaza strip. I continue walking in northern direction. Here the city starts looking like Paris or London. Very European looks in some spots, although this is all mixed with huge skyscrapers and American style wide roads.

I'm back at the river for some sunset skyline shots at 8:30pm. At 9:30pm I head back to the hotel. There I spend almost an hour trying to get the Internet connection to work.

07.01: Melbourne
Hotel Medina Executive branch, Melbourne. The shower is not too good, as the jet consists of very thin and high-pressure rays of water, which generate a lot of water vaporisation. Finally the Internet connection works, although it is not free (AUD 10 for one hour, AUD 25 for one day). Fast Internet connection (40KByte/s sustained, fast enough for high quality VoIP phone calls).
Weather: overcast the whole day until 5pm, after that sunny and blue sky. Quite fresh.

I get up in the morning, but since outside it is overcast it's pointless to rush out to explore Melbourne, so I stay in the room. At 10:30am I call again the technical support of the Internet connection (Docomo Intertouch is the provider). They send two technicians to my room, who confirm that the Internet connection is not working. They leave, then are back within an hour and have fixed the problem. Perhaps some router was malfunctioning. Finally I can check my emails.

It's almost 2pm when I leave the hotel and walk towards the centre of Melbourne. People (locals) are very busy, rushing on the street. Shortly after 3pm I discover the shopping mall around the Melbourne Central station. I buy some washing powder for the clothes (am planning to use the washing machine in the room).

Around 3:40pm I start walking towards the Royal Exhibition building in the Carlton gardens. For some strange reason this is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Perhaps Australia lobbied a lot to have this building added to the UNESCO list, because it is nothing special. I'm there at 4pm. Since the sky is still overcast I stop for some time in the gardens and read the Australia guide book. Then I walk into the nearby Melbourne museum. There I'm told that there are no guided tours to the interior of the Royal Exhibition building for the whole week.

In the meantime the weather is improving and at 5pm when I get out of the museum the sky is blue and the sun is shining. I use this opportunity to shoot some photos of the gardens and of Melbourne, then head towards the observation deck on top of the Rialto towers. I'm on top at 6:20pm (entry is UD 14.50). Nice view of Melbourne and the surrounding area. I'll then spend the next few hours in the obervation deck, until after sunset.

At 9:40pm I leave and go back to the hotel. There I take some brochures about day tours around Melbourne. In the room I select the tour to the Yarra valley (lots of wineries), the Dandenong hills and the Healesville wildlife centre. This tour includes a short trip with the funny "Puffing Billy" steam locomotive. I'm not interested in this, but there are no tours to the Yarra valley and Healesville which do not include this locomotive trip (except one which is more expensive than the same tour without the locomotive trip). Interestingly the tours in Melbourne are more expensive than the tours in Sydney. The tour I book costs AUD 126, while the Sydney tour to the Blue Mountains cost only AUD 55.

08.01: Melbourne -> Dandenongs -> Yarra valley -> Healesville -> Melbourne
Hotel Medina Executive branch, Melbourne. The hotel actually is in a noisy location, adjacent to a busy road and the main railway line.
Weather: mostly sunny, blue sky, but overcast and even some rain between 9am and 11am in the Dandenong hills. A mix of overcast and blue skies after that. Very fresh and windy, too cold to wear shorts.

For today I have booked the tour to the Yarra valley and the Healesville wildlife sanctuary. I'm at the meeting point where the tour bus is waiting for me at 8:20am. The bus belongs to the Grayline tour operator and it appears that I have booked a Grayline tour without knowing it (my booking was through Melbourne City Tours). It's a big bus with a capacity of around 50 seats.

At 8:30am sharp we leave to the first destination, the Sherbrook forest. The driver talks non-stop all the time while driving (lots of "funny" things, perhaps this guy has been trained to behave like this). At the Sherbrooke forest near Belgrave we stop in a parking and are greeted by a multitude of parrots (red-blue ones, pink-grey ones and sulphur crested cockatoos). In fact the cockatoos are not afraid, jump on my shoulder, eat from my hand and steal the Lamington chocolate cake. While we are there it rains briefly. It's quite cold and windy.

After that the driver brings us to the station of the Puffing Billy steam train in Belgrave. Here, at 10:30am, departs a narrow-gauge (76cm) train which at the speed of 15km/h drops us off in the Menzies Creek station 20 minutes later. This is an old train, built in 1900, which went out of service in 1953 when more modern trains became available and was restaurated by a team of stubborn volunteers. Needless to say, I would have avoided this useless trip on the toy train if I could. It's useless, because the train passes across the forest, the views are very unspectacular, but the train trip adds something like AUD 20 to the cost of the trip.

The driver picks us up in the Menzies Creek station and then drives us to the Ferguson winery in the Yarra valley. The Yarra valley is a relatively flat region, very green, with many farms and every now and then a villa. It's a quite pleasant environment. What's amazing is the huge amount of space: not all land is used for agriculture, there are lots of empty meadows used to raise cattle. In densely populated central Europe a similar area would be intensively cultivated, every single square metre would be used for something. Every now and then there are some vineyards. It seems that these people are not as wine-obsessed as wine producers in Europe, where around the wineries every single spot of land is used to grow wine grapes.

Shortly before noon the driver stops in the court of the Ferguson winery. Those who have booked the lunch now have a lunch based on steamed/boiled beef. I do some wine tasting. The winery produces only two white wines (one of them sparkling) and about 7-8 red wines. The sparkling white wine is not bad, but in Germany in every supermarket you find dozens of good sparkling wines on offer. The other white wine is unimpressive. I don't like the taste of the red wine I try. Perhaps I've been spoiled by growing up in wine growing regions in Europe and am used to special wines. Still the fact is that these wines of the Ferguson winery are altogether unimpressive.

Shortly after 1pm we drive to the next place, the Healesville wildlife sanctuary. There are a few interesting or scenic spots along the way, where it would make sense to have a brief photos stop, but the driver drives non-stop to the next destination, all the time talking nonsense. Sigh.

We arrive at Healesville at 1:40pm. The driver explains that we have two hours there and at 3:45pm he will pick us up again. Healesville is sort of a zoo, hosting a number of Australian animals in more natural settings than in a standard zoo. There are koalas, kangaroos, emus, platypus, reptiles, birds, wombats, echidna and more Australian animals. Overall very nice setting.

At 3:45pm we drive back to Melbourne. More nice views along the way, but the driver doesn't stop. At one point we see a herd of kangaroos hopping on a field a few hundred metres away from us. Again the driver does not stop and simply continues driving. Shortly after 5pm we're back in Melbourne. I use the remaining part of the day to have some food and do some shopping. I'm back in the hotel early at 7:20pm.

09.01: Melbourne -> KL
Hotel Boulevard, KL. RM 295 for a double room with A/C etc. There is also a hairdryer and a fridge. Fast Internet access costs RM 60 per day, RM 160 per week.
Weather: sunny, blue sky with a few clouds, fresh (temperature around 17C) in the morning in Melbourne.

I check out at 10:30am, then take a taxi to the airport. The taxi driver has just received the drivers licence four days ago. We are at the airport at 11:15am. There is quite a long queue at the check-in counter, I only manage to check in shortly before 12pm, then I proceed to the gate. The plane, an A330, leaves more or less on time at 12:45pm. It is three quarters full. We land in KL on time and after retrieving the luggage I take a taxi to the hotel.

Copyright 2009 Alfred Molon