Friday, 18 January 2013

A tale of Two Cities and one Great road

A koala!

No this is not an Australian greeting. Finally I had spotted one of the iconic and cuddly animals of Australia. Too high up in a tree to take a photo but I'd seen one. Could the trip get better? There I was cycling along one of the world's most iconic roads - The Great Ocean Road, with the waves on my right, the bush on my left, the sun safely hidden behind kind grey clouds (Funny how your perception of clouds changes depending where you are) and a gently rolling road - flat around the bays and climbing round the headlands.

'This is why I cycle.' I thought loudly to myself.

It was then that there was a sudden 'whack-bang' and my front wheel stopped moving. I instinctively applied the breaks, popped out my clip-in shoes and came to a halt. One of my front panniers had somehow come off, wrapped itself around my disk brakes and managed to snap my mud guard in half in the process. Oh dear. It looked like a loose strap was to blame. I cursed myself as I had vowed never to make this mistake again following a similar accident on the way to work in London last year.

I carried my bike to the other side of the road - the front wheel was completely jammed. I began dismantling the front rack and the wheel to get the bag out. Several cars and bikes passed though no one stopped to check if I was ok. None that is until Phil and his son Haydn slowed down and called out 'You ok?'. I said I was fine thanks but 5 minutes later they appeared on foot and offered to help me move my bike and all my belongings to their bit of concrete in the house just above the road where I could do my repairs safely away from the traffic. Phil also mentioned the magic words 'Cup of tea?'.

Phil was born in Scotland but his family had moved out here when he was very young. A British motorcycle enthusiast he had recently started cycling and bought himself a super-duper road bike. The day before, Haydn had swum in an 1 kilometre ocean swim in the little seaside town of Lorne. Over 1000 participants make this the biggest open water swim in the world. Shame to have just missed it. They invited me for a fish burger lunch then I pedalled off without a front mud guard and left father and son to go fishing.

Once again I was reminded about why I travel by bike. Not only to see the koalas and the ocean but, like the man who travelled round Ireland with a fridge, the bike loaded up with stuff, is most definitely a conversation starter.

The building of the Great Ocean Road began after the First World War. The aim was to connect Warrnambool and the dairy producing area around Adelaide to Melbourne. An incredible feat of engineering, it also created thousands of desperately needed jobs for the soldiers back from fighting. I began my cycle at the far west of the road taking a train to Warrnambool from Melbourne. However in true train style it was a bus replacement service due to a 'sick train'.

The first section of the Great Ocean Road (thankfully nobody has thought of shortening the name to GOR) included the stunning rocky outcrops known as the Bay of Islands, London Bridge and the Grotto. And the ominously labelled Bay of Martyrs and Massacre Bay. This was where Europeans killed a large group of Kirrae-Whurrong Aboriginal men by driving them off the cliffs. Their women and children were killed in a nearby swamp. Although there is no written evidence about this massacre, the local Aboriginal population dropped from a couple of thousand to virtually none, the few survivors were sent to various missions around Victoria "for their protection, education, and integration".The land west of Melbourne was very fertile and early white settlers were greedy to make it their own - at any cost.

The same day also included a short ride and enough time for an afternoon lunch and swim on the beach at Peterborough. The water on the south coast is much colder than tropical Brisbane but I am starting to like the feeling of swimming in cold water. It's just a feeling after all.

Day two began with the famous 12 Apostles - originally 12 but now closer to 8 rocky pillars lined up majestically along the coast. It was blowing a gale so the photos of me in my pink waterproof are more comedic than iconic. Ahead of me were three hills and my first 60 mile, challenging day on my own. I was glad to meet two other cyclists that day. Janik from France was cycling and working his way round Australia. He wasn't sure if he was going to stick with the bike, as he said, it does get a bit boring. Second was a Dutch guy who had been doing a lot of bush camping and had clearly spent a lot of time on his own. I was happier with hostels.

I also met some great people also travelling the Great Ocean Road including another 36 year old British female travelling on her own, the second I have met. Emma was a permanent make up artist from Birmingham. Earlier on the trip I met Mel, a vetinary nurse from Bristol. It is good for the soul to be reminded that you are not the only person doing what you are doing. Even if I have got a bike. Emma had joined a lot of trips which meant she had met lots of people. I went for breakfast with Emma, Ryan - a Dutch guy and and Til from Germany. This is the good and bad about travelling. You can make great connections with people you feel you could get along with, but then you're on the road again. In fact most days when I set off after meeting someone I sing the famous verse from that 80s children television hit - The Littlest Hobo.

Never did I think the words would become so relevant.

'There's a voice, keeps on calling me.
Down the road, that's where I want to be.
Every stop I make, I make a new friend.
Can't stay for long, just turn around and I'm gone again.
Maybe tomorrow I'll wanna settle down.
Until tomorrow I'll just keep moving on.
Doo do do do'

Something to think about as I head to South East Asia. How to combine the bike which is a great way of travelling, keeping fit and meeting people whilst also being flexible enough to stay in places which I like. After all, this is a year's trip. I do have a flight schedule but want to be able to enjoy the freedom that not working brings and stay a little while in places that draw me in.

The day of the bike mishap was the third and most beautiful day on the ocean road. The road in this section - from Apollo Bay to Anglesea - goes right next to the water. I stopped at a spot where the famous William Buckley had lived. Australian's talk about Buckley's choice which means having no choice. Born in Macclesfield in 1780 he first was a bricklayer then a soldier and then aged 22 was accused of theft and sentenced to 14 years transportation. He was sent to the convict settlement at Sorrento known for its lack of water and poor sanitation. In 1803 on Christmas Eve when the guards had been drinking he escaped with a handful of others. He lived in solitude in the bush for a year eating shell fish, pig face and a sort of currant. Not sure what was wrong with the rest of the pig. After a year he decided that 'man was not made to live alone' and headed back to the settlement ready to give himself up. On the way a chance encounter with two Wathaurong women, who believed he was the reincarnated version of one of their clan, welcomed him in to their community. Buckley spent 32 years living with these people. From the age of 23 to 45. He came across John Batman's encampment then re-entered white man's world. He became an interpreter and constable though he felt torn between his two lives. He chose instead to move to Tasmania, got married and died aged 76. What an incredible life.

I had arranged to meet Björn, a German guy who I'd met two days before so needed to get to Anglsea. Amazing how an appointment, especially with a German can motivate those legs. We met another girl, Sabina from Holland/Indonesia on her first trip on her own. Another little funny group eating dinner in a tiny beach house in a small town named after a Welsh island.

The fourth day I headed towards the bottom of the bay at Queenscliff to catch the ferry to Sorrento. At the beginning of a path I met Pia, originally from Coventry she had taken up cycling 7 years ago when she was in her mid 40s. She very kindy rode with me showing me the way to the ferry. It is such a privilege to talk to other people and hear their life stories. Always a good reminder that you never know what's round the corner.

Pia took me to her local bike shop to meet Steve. Steve was a keen bicycle tourer himself and had just had a tandem custom made so that he and his wife could fit their three year old inbetween them and they could all pedal. Their next trip is planned around Samoa. Steve advised me on keeping safe. I bought a bike mirror and he said I should keep my lights on and wear brighter clothing. He offered to put me up in their home just off the beach. I had a credit card reservation on a hostel in Sorrento so said no but wished I had taken him up on his offer. Particularly as the hostel was deadly quiet save for two lots of guests, one with their baby and the other who was an author who wanted to convince the world of the scientific basis for astrology.

The final leg should have been easy. Sorrento, round the bay to Frankston then train to Melbourne. My legs however were just not feeling it. It took a lot of will power to keep pedalling in hot sunshine with turquoise water metres away. I thought I would have time for at least a short dip, but no, I spent too long on breakfast and my coffee break. One part of the road went on to the headland - Martha's Mount. A very desirable Melbourne suburb. Unfortunately there had been a landslide so the road had closed. I had to cycle even further up the hill, a steep hill in the hot afternoon sunshine. I checked the map and came back down only to find that the road was still closed. Arghhh.

I spoke to the men working on the road.

'Any chance I could get through?'
'No chance, you just need to go up and then down'
'But I've already been all the way up and all the way down'
'Well at least you know the area'

As much as it was kind of this chap to look for the positive in my predicament I wasn't that buoyed by his comment. I slowly turned my bike around and forlornly began pushing it up the hill. I told myself to just get on with it and rest when it was done.

Two minutes later I heard a truck behind me. It was one of the guys from the road works.

'Want to chuck your bike in the trailer?'
'Yes please' I beamed.

Trevor with a big white beard and pony tail then drove me up the hill and down the hill, depositing me 300 metres away from where the road was blocked. I was a happy biker.

From Frankston I caught a train back to Melbourne for my fourth and final experience of the city. Some say that Sydney is pretty but Melbourne is friendly. Whilst others categorise the difference as Sydney - blonde and Melbourne - brunette. Perhaps it depends on your mood. Or perhaps one is more for life.

Before I write about Melbourne however, let's go back a few weeks to Christmas which was spent in Sydney. My parents flew over for the festive season and took a few days to adjust to Austrlian time. On their second day we did a tour of the Opera House. Really interesting story behind how one of the world's most iconic buildings. It was only by chance that the final design by relatively unknown Danish architect Jørn Utzon was chosen. At the meeting to decide which architect should win the design competition, one of the four judges, Eero Saarinen (whose work includes the St Louis Gateway arch) arrived late and insisted on looking at the rejected designs. Utzon's original drawings were pulled from the reject pile and declared 'outstanding'. They were very sketchy and the engineers were faced with a huge challenge to make the design a reality. Work began in 1956. The project went way over budget and took much longer than planned. So much so that the Utson architect's payments were stopped and he resigned in 1966. There were marches on the streets of Sydney against the New South Wales government. Utson left Australia and never saw his building finished. There was however a happy end to the Danish story. He was eventually invited back and although he couldn't make the journey by then he was honoured to have a room named after him and continued to collaborate on redevelopment and improvements to the building. Building the Sydney Opera House was a bold and brave decision made at a time when Australia felt confident about its future.

One of the things I loved most about Sydney was its opportunities for swimming. Sydney's European residents first swum in sheltered areas around the bay. Some of these became Olympic pools, like the North Sydney pool with its incredible view of the Harbour Bridge or the Boy Charlton pool which looks on to an Australian naval ship. Other pools have remained rock pools like the one I swum in in Manly or Balmain. The pools give you a sense of how swimming became popular from the 30s for health and hygiene and especially after the Second World War for recreation and fitness. My favourite history of a pool was from the oldest in Australia - the Dawn Fraser Baths. Or more specifically the life of Dawn Fraser.

In 1999 Dawn Fraser was awarded athlete of the century in the world sports awards in Vienna. She was the first woman to win gold at three consecutive Olympic Games - 100 metres in 1956, 60 and 64. During her career she broke and held 41 World records and was undefeated over 100 metres. She also won two golds at the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff - what a pool - where I learned to swim properly and catch verrucas. But like all the greats she had more of a story. She was banned from the Olympics for ten years because she insisted on wearing her old swim suit rather than the sponsor's swim suit as it was more comfy and she also defied instructions and marched in the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo Games. She also got arrested in Tokyo for trying to steal the Australian flag after a few drinks with the Australian rowing club from outside the palace. She later became a Member of Parliament, had an affair with a woman and has generally gained a reputation of being outspoken - though some of her views on immigration are more suited to the Daily Mail. I also struggle with the ongoing dichotomy of white Australian complaining about immigration. Nonetheless a remarkable life.

Sydney was then a sunny (apart from rainy Christmas Day), beautiful, watery and vibrant city. Melbourne though had me at hello.

My first stop in Melbourne was for New Year's Eve with my parents. We stayed for four nights in a hotel in the 'CBD' the Central Business District. We did lots of exploring, took a river boat down the Yarra, joined a free walking tour, visited the Australian Museum, the art galery, drank coffee, ate in some lovely restaurants and watched the fireworks on New Years Eve. I began to get an understanding of its history. A settlement grew and then just as it got its independence from New South Wales, and Victoria was established then gold was discovered in 1851. The city went crazy with the population trippling in 20 years and it took time for town planning to catch up. I had a great time with my parents - an unexpected positive outcome of this year. When I began my round the world cycling adventure one of my intentions was to try and see and understand places through the eyes of people who live there so I was lucky to then experience Melbourne through the home of three lots of Mebournites.

My second experience of Melbourne was staying with friends Peter and Shells in Hyatt. Staying in the classic Neighbours suburb we had a barbie, went swimming with the children and hid from the 42 degree heat wave that coincided with our visit. My mum, dad and I had a really relaxing time and some good chats. You need this kind of stay when you are on the move. Time that makes you feel you are home.

My third experience of Mebourne I was very lucky to stay with friends Bridget and Jo in their loft conversion in trendy Fitzroy. The neighbourhood has a uber cool coffee shop on every corner. Everyone has a moustache, tattoos, 50s shirt and brunch is most certainly the meal of the moment. Melbourne brunch is about perfectly poached eggs, feta cheese, brioche or my favourite Australian breakfast ingredient: avocado. Bridget took me to Proud Mary's where the staff generally have chosen have bright coral lip stick, short shorts and a item of vintage clothing. I had avocado on toast. This was avocado chopped with tomatoe, mint, chilli and crumbly goat's cheese on sour dough toast. London, there is definitely scope for more avocado at breakfast.

One evening whilst staying with Bridget and Jo we ate at Lentil as Anything. A vegetarian curry place where you queue up, help yourself to the buffet and pay what you think you should at the end. Homeless people eat for nothing whilst Fitzroy artsy types give what their conscience requires. Dinner was followed by a movie - Melbourne style - an open air cinema where we watched a superb film called Moonrise Kingdom. A Wes Anderson prodcuction about two children who run away together. My favourite lines in the film.

Sam: So, what do you want to be when you grow up?
Suzy: I don't know...I want go on adventures I think--not get stuck in one place. How about you?
Sam: Go on adventures too, not get stuck too.

As dusk fell a colony of fruit bats flew over head. Incredible. A movie up front and a natural performance framed by the courtyard above.

Whilst in the city I also met up with my good friend James - yes another James. Famous, amongst my friends for proposing to his girlfriend at a wedding. He chooses his moments. He and his wife (not the same as the then girlfriend) moved out here for work and are enjoying making a life for themselves here. I also met up with Ken, another Labour Party connection who filled me in on the politics of the Labour government here and also Simon who we met in Hawaii. The small world that is out planet.

My final experience of Melbourne was from the perspective of Anna and Ian who live in the city. They are also cyclists and last year spent 6 months cycling around Europe. Their trip included pedalling through Albania and Macedonia. Albania apparently has great food with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. They took me to Victoria Market and around Melbourne's hidden lanes where bars and yet more coffee shops spring up creating bustling alley ways that give Melbourne a hint of its eastern location. Spending time with them also reminded me that cycling in quiet remote places is more fun with a cycling buddy. Someone you can look back at the photos with and reminisce about those adventures.

Altogether I stayed in Melbourne for 11 nights and by the time I left this morning, after spending my final day watching international tennis stars at the Australian Open with Bridget, I felt I knew the city well. Last night as I wandered the streets with Ian and Anna we talked about the connection between place and people. Melbourne draws people who like that it has a street art scene, who like its tiny cafes, the funky districts as well as the beach and the trams. If you head to a place for a reason you are going to find people who like the same things you do.

Something to be aware of when travelling because if you only go to places you like then you will only meet people like you. But then maybe there are a lot of people like you.

Melbourne recently knocked Vancover off the top spot of 'Most liveable city'. The survey conducted by the Economist's Global Intelligence Unit considers how “tolerable” it is to live in a particular place given its crime levels, threat of conflict, quality of medical care, levels of censorship, temperature, schools and transport links. Australian cities , including Sydney, Adelaide and Perth dominate the top ten and fair well due to their low population density, good transport and western life styles. The survey is created with ex-pats in mind so two of the three education measures apply to private schools. The survey is used to work out how much employees should be paid to relocate to a particular place. Dhaka, Bangladesh, bottom of the list, therefore will yield the most relocation cash. London remains far down the list at 55 despite the huge cultural success of the Olympics those rioting youths have a lot to answer for. Who would want to live there? Ironically Melbournites love all things from London. And yet most liveable cannot come down to climate, transport and population density. Liveable has to be comfortable and where you feel most at home. And that can be all manner of places.

So just before I land in Brunei and two weeks before Thailand I am making a decison. Here on the plane. Maybe this trip needs slowing down. I am going to spend some time so get to know Thailand and meet some people in fewer places. A city, a beach, a small town. Depth rather than hundreds of miles. The bike still comes with me - after paying £100 to get it on this plane, you bet it does.

'To go on adventures.' And there is adventure in everything and every day - wherever you are.