Melbourne looked fantastic as we arrived. We drove in over a huge flyover, the city spread out in front of us like a great sprawling futuristic metropolis. It was much bigger and busier than we had expected. Our expectations were of course based entirely on Neighbours so some degree of inaccuracy was inevitable, but this vibrant looking city was beyond everything that we expected.
We found ourselves a camp site in the middle of a housing estate, had a few drinks with the ubiquitous grog swilling bogans that are a fixture of every camp site in Australia, many of them like strung out, tattooless tattoo artist Rob in Broome living there on a fairly permanent basis. Then in the morning we headed out to explore the city.
The first thing that strikes you in Melbourne id=s the famous “hook turn” which involves not leaving a junction when the light is green when you wish to turn right. Instead of waiting in the right hand lane, you get in the left hand lane and then join the traffic moving from left to right when it is their turn to go. This is very counter intuitive and had I not read about it in my Lonely Planet guide book we probably would have crashed almost immediately as there is nothing that explains what needs to be done except for some ambiguous signage. On top of this, Melbourne is the only city in Australia that does this so even the natives can easily get caught out if they are Melbourne virgins.
As if this isn’t enough to deal with, there are trams on the roads. Bloody great trams that expect you to just get out of the way as they sail past.
“Trams, how quaint.” I hear you say. “I don’t know what you are complaining about. They are environmentally friendly, convenient and aesthetically pleasing.”
Well to put it in perspective, in Melbourne last year there were one thousand collisions between trams and other vehicles. One thousand. That is about three a day. That may not seem like a lot for a big city like Melbourne, but the difference is that trams are huge. Their sheer momentum makes them much more dangerous than the vast majority of other vehicles on the city’s roads.
In theory they are a good idea, but why they have to share the roads with the other traffic I do not know. So with unexpected hook turns and trams to dodge, Melbourne is the least enjoyable city to drive in that I have ever been to. And I’ve been to Nairobi.
Traffic aside, we really didn’t get into the vibe of the town in Melbourne and so instead here is a little on the foundation of the town, which is an interesting if sad story.
Originally Melbourne was founded in haste as the British were concerned that the French may settle in the area, taking the rich and fertile land for themselves and creating the potential for future border and land title disputes. The land was “purchased” from the local aboriginal tribe The Wurundjeri by the fortunately named John Batman who, had he been alive today would not have struggled to attract the ladies with a name like that.
The contentious Melbourne Treaty was signed by Batman and the tribe, with the aborigines purportedly giving ownership of 2400 square kilometres of land that they did not technically own in the first place to Batman in exchange for some blankets, knives, axes, scissors, mirrors, grain, handkerchiefs and shirts.
The land was in fact at this point already under the jurisdiction of the government and so not legally for sale by anyone but them, at least in the eyes of the British. On top of this, the aborigines who sold the land had no real concept of land ownership, believing instead that they belonged to the land due to the fleeting nature of human existence and clearly they did not fully understand the deal that was being offered to them. Either that or they really needed handkerchiefs.
However, this audacious attempt to purchase a truly vast amount of land in exchange for what appears to be the contents of his shed went ahead, and Batman made his fortune.
Melbourne went through a number of incarnations before it became the city that it is today, the best of which for me being the period during which it was known as Batmania. If only it had stayed Batmania it would probably now be home to the coolest villains on earth rather than the more boring mafiosos that frequent it now and lunatics such as the infamous Mark “Chopper” Read. Maybe we should have realised that we may not fully “get” a city whose most famous son achieved his notoriety by cutting off his own ear. Still if it worked for Van Gough…
We only stayed in Melbourne for three days and so although we left without it having made any really notable impression on us, we weren’t really there for long enough to make any sort of fair appraisal of the city. We mainly drank cheap lager on the camp site for the three days that we did stay there until on the morning of the fourth day, we set out for Canberra.