Houseboats and the Hawks

Apparently I’m unable to write titles that either a) don’t include alliteration, or b) don’t include bird breeds. Ah well.

So, in the penultimate week of my stay in Victoria, I decided to brave the rural part of the state, and leave the safety of the city behind. On telling people that I was visiting Mildura, without the intention of grape picking or getting a harvest job, I was met with many strange looks, and the phrase ‘well in Australia, you’re a city person or a country person’. I shrugged this off – you can be both! I am both! I love the city (20 minutes in one direction from my house) and I love the countryside (ten minutes in the other direction). No no, I was told, you’re one or the other here.

An eight-hour train and bus journey takes you to the far reaches of Victoria: board the V-Line train from Southern Cross station, change at Swan Hill or Bendigo, and continue on a coach. The journey cost $45 one-way, which is a bargain when you consider that a two-hour train journey at home can cost up to £30. The V-Line trains are pleasant: air conditioning, free water, and a buffet cab, as well as spacious and comfy seats.

Travelling through Victoria, I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. The majority of the stops had fallen into utter disrepair. Towns were boarded up and the streets were empty. Colour had disappeared from the landscape, and you were only left with yellows and browns, arid and stark against the bright blue skies.

Mildura was greener, thankfully, but after the vibrant city and throngs of people, it was hard getting used to the desolate streets and silence. The agricultural town depends solely on the Murray River: it uses the water to irrigate all of its crops, as well as its rice fields (obviously an environmentally and economically viable plant to grow in the borders of the outback…). A cold winter’s day can reach the Arctic lows of 18-degrees, and the town usually tops the state’s temperature charts in the summer: I was looking forwards to sun and blue skies, but for my time in the town, it was grey, drizzly and cold (so, 22-degrees. England’s going to be fun…).

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What the town lacks in atmosphere and noise, the Murray makes up for in beauty: its olive coloured waters aren’t the murky green of many English rivers, but fresh, matching the borders of eucalyptus trees along the banks. It meanders its way through three states, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, in its own lazy fashion: much like the Australian way of life, it goes in its own way and its own pace. As the bird flies, it near enough goes three kilometres sideways for every one kilometre it moves forward. Flocks of cockatoos and pelicans make themselves at home on the banks, mixing in with the usual assortment of ducks and magpies.

The Murray, and Mildura in particular, is known for its water traffic – houseboats and paddle steamers that gently make their way along the river’s course. When you look at the river, and its last wood-burning paddle steamer, The Melbourne, you can see black and white films unfold before your eyes, of women in Victorian dresses and parasols, and men with cigars and boaters. You can’t visit Mildura without going on the river (and thereby entering – floating on? – NSW), so we spent the day on a private houseboat, passing the looping bends and multi-million dollar properties.

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Driving a houseboat is very slow, and much harder than it looked, but armed with my Captain’s hat and four year’s of sailing experience, I managed to steer it for a good few kilometres, without killing any kayakers, or grounding the boat in the shallows. Once off the boat, we visited the meeting point of the Murray and the Darling, a spot that is the epitome of serenity.

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I’m not the world’s best sleeper, and even less so in strange places (I think on average I’ve been running on three hour’s sleep a night since leaving the UK), so the odd noises coming from the other side of the patio door to where I was staying were slightly disconcerting. However,  two dogs lived at the property with free range to go outside at night, so that was that. By the third night, however, when the dogs had been dropped off at a boarding kennels, the footsteps continued. Having been told earlier that there’s a fair whack of crystal meth produced (and consumed) in the area, I realised it was probably definitely a drug addict skittering around on the decking, about to attack me, and spent the night lying very still, coming up with escape plans, and vowing to take self-defence classes on my return to England.

After my stay in Mildura, I quickly realised that I am very much a city person. Give me the people watching, the traffic, the crowds, the laneways, cafes, boutiques, book shops and nights out that Melbourne offers.

Since beginning my travels, I’ve started to get into the whole team sports thing more and more (i.e. I enjoyed watching ice hockey in Canada), so when an opportunity arose to go and see a game of AFL, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. The team I wanted to see play, Hawthorn Hawks, have been my honorary footy team since before I can remember (I’m sure we still have a very ratty bobble hat that’s sat in our coat cupboard for about three-hundred years), and is the team of choice for most of my friends and family over here, as well as dad. The match was being held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (capacity of 100,000 – 110,000), and were scheduled to play Fremantle – the team they beat in the 2013 Grand Final.

After trying to find directions to the MCG (with Google Maps being incredibly helpful and having no public transport information for Australia – use the PTV journey planner), I gave up, and simply followed the flood of gold and brown. Even with my complete lack of direction, getting to the G is pretty easy: hop off at Richmond, and head to the giant stadium that cannot, in any way, be missed. Entry was $25, which for a three-hour Friday night game, I thought was cheap (although I’d have no clue how much you’d pay to see an Arsenal/Man City game at home).

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Having no prior knowledge of the sport, bar that it’s a bit violent, I didn’t expect to follow it at all, but luckily, it’s a fairly easy game to get the hang of (at least from a very basic spectating point of view). As far as I gathered, getting the ball between the two middle sticks (goals?) is six points, and one point for getting it between the two outside sticks (real name for these being…?). When the ball travels over a certain distance, the team passing it gets to have a free throw/kick/pass. This may however all be made up. In terms of tackles and take downs, it seemed like anything goes (slightly confused over the guys being tackled when they didn’t have a ball).

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The atmosphere was great: Hawks dominated Fremantle, and seeing as it was their home ground, the stadium was electric. Unlike the vicious (and often offensive) chants that accompany soccer games, there was only the Hawks chant – no swear words, no racism, no homophobia. It felt safe, and judging from the amount of young kids walking around on their own, and the amount of families, it’s a good place to be. There were also loads of women – I’ve never seen that many at soccer games, but when there are AFL players running around in teeny tiny shorts, I’m not surprised there were so many (joking, kind of).

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