Australia – The Grand Slam Tour 2015

So Gill and I have eased nicely into our mature gap year…or however long our work hiatus lasts. Actors call it resting between roles, I believe.

Alarm calls are a thing of the past. Instead of getting up at 06:20, walking down the hill to catch the 07:25 to Waterloo and playing Russian Roulette on a freezing Boris Bike over deadly Blackfriars Bridge, I wake up as nature intended….my warm semi-retired missus snuffling quietly beside me, Radio 4 gently invading our relaxed brains as we ease into the day, and a bacon butty calling us from downstairs.

Over the last few months we’ve read more, seen Gill’s nieces in a nativity play, watched movies in the daytime, met friends in coffee shops in the middle of the morning, walked the beautiful Surrey Hills on weekdays. I’m learning Italian and Gill is a volunteer gardener at the beautiful nearby estate of Loseley Park. And we sleep really well.

Travel was always on the semi-retirement agenda. So far we’ve conquered Hadrian’s Wall (well, almost), done a whistle-stop tour of Norway, basked in Spanish sunshine and explored the majestic countryside and coast in Devon, Northumberland, Scotland and Derbyshire.

But now we’re ready for The Big One. Next week we head off for 5 weeks in Australia. Selfishly, the original excuse was to see the Australian Open tennis tournament and to complete my personal Grand Slam. I’ll feel almost as elated as Roger Federer when I step out onto the Rod Laver court in Melbourne at the end of January….several decades after first going to Wimbledon, followed by the US Open in the 1980s and the French Open at Roland Garros as recently as 2013, but that just proves my athletic longevity, right?

With our new-found freedom, the itinerary has expanded.  We’re starting off with 10 days in Adelaide, getting the train across to Melbourne for a week there and then taking 2 weeks to explore Tasmania, of which 10 days will be in a camper van and the final 4 days will be restoring ourselves in a pampering Hobart hotel.

I’ll be blogging about our Grand Slam Tour Down Under on this page, and also hopefully as a guest on Silver Travel Advisor.

So stay tuned if you want to hear about how we get on in those mouthwatering Aussie wineries near Adelaide and Melbourne, whether the temperature at the Open surpasses last year’s 43c….and if I can finally manage to split a log for the camper van camp fire in the Tasmanian wilderness.

All without an alarm clock.

Day 1 – Thursday, January 15

The iciness of the 333 Vietnamese beers briefly burst through our foggy jet-lagged minds.

 19 hours in the air + 1 hour in transit + 11 hours time difference + 6 movies + virtually NIL sleep = mental madness.

We were wandering around central Adelaide in the early evening, in search of something light and healthy after the seemingly endless trays of calorific food served up by Singapore Airlines between London and Australia.

We also needed some DVT-banishing leg-stretching and, in an effort to stay awake until a normal local bedtime, we stumbled on the Chinatown area on Gouger Street (pronounced Goo-jer, mate), quite a way south of our base on North Terrace.

Little NNQ (catchy name, eh?) turned out to be an authentic and tasty Vietnamese place. Chilli-hot Ha Noi spring rolls reactivated the taste buds. Xoi Man, sticky rice with sausage and pork floss, looked like chip sticks dropped onto a coagulated mass of semolina, sprinkled with paprika…..but tasted much better than it looked, with interesting flavours and textures exploding in the jaded mouth. Gill loved her Ca Kho, a generous portion of caramelised meat-like fish cutlets, and gloriously sticky rice.

A brief foray across the Torrens River on a controversial but funky new bridge, past the Adelaide Oval – where I had seen England lose to Australia in so many cricket matches during my distant youth – and the Cathedral, had started our hazy introduction to Adelaide.

333 Indochinese beers – well, a few of them anyway – finished it in style.

Day 2- Friday, January 16

In search of a healthy breakfast away from our corporate hotel, we hit the streets of Adelaide in dazzling sunshine, feeling self-righteous after an early jetlag-banishing gym session.

I thought we’d embraced coffee culture in the UK, with artisan temples of caffeine gushing up on seemingly every corner in London….but this is a whole new religion.

Adeladies and Admen en route to work grabbed their fix on the run or chatted amiably, standing at newspaper-strewn high counters, in the dozens of cafes on Pirie Street, before hitting the office.

We settled on Kicco, a buzzy temple on the corner of Pirie and Wyatt Streets, enjoying an organic booster of yoghurt, fruit and seeds, together with poached eggs and bacon on toast. And a double espresso shot of their house blend, producing a caffeine injection so intense that any last vestige of jetlag was banished as quickly as a jihadi from a synagogue.

Later, we dropped into The Store in North Adelaide, recommended by friends James and Helen. The area has a different vibe to the Central Business District, feeling  as cool and moneyed as Rodeo Drive in Beverley Hills, but still with the same adoration of coffee. Simon Barista Ware, get your bean-fuelled arse over here….you’d never leave.

By the way, an Americano translates into a Long Black in these parts, unless you want to stick out like a sore Pom.

The rest of the day was action-packed. A long exploration of the serenely immaculate botanic garden was followed by a oenophile adventure at the National Wine Centre, education preceding practice, with posh Aussie whites accompanied by a groaning platter of exquisite charcuterie from the nearby Barossa Valley.

And much later, Gill tried her first ever oyster – the apparently world-class Coffin Bay variety – thanks to young expat Germans Anita and Claudia, with whom we shared several beers on The Deck at the Entertainment Centre, overlooking the Torrens River in warm evening sunshine whilst listening to some excellent eclectic live acoustic music.

A late curry on Rundle Street, then an unprofitable casino splurge, ended a brilliant introductory day to Adelaide.

But it’s the coffee culture that has defined the city for me so far.

Day 3 – Saturday, January 17

A day of sunshine, friends, family, community and sport…..Australia in a nutshell.

Our old neighbours and friends from Godalming, John & Eileen Geoghegan, emigrated to Queensland several years ago to be close to their son and new grandchildren. Inveterate cyclists for many decades, they – John & Eileen, not the grandchildren – make the annual pilgrimage to Adelaide in January for the Tour Down Under.

For the last couple of years, they have also met up with their old UK cycling club friend Dot, now living in Glenelg, a beach suburb of Adelaide. Dot emigrated to be close to her own daughter, Suzanne.

Suzanne and her husband are very keen and inhumanly fit amateur cyclists, having recently conquered the hardest climb of the Giro d’Italia in the Dolomites, and thinking nothing of pedalling a quick 150 km on a training ride around the rolling Adelaide hills.

You get the picture….age-defying mentalities, lycra, adrenaline.

Gill and I, on the other hand, are not cyclists. Well, only if 2 miles on a Boris Bike in the rush hour counts.

But on a warm, sunny Saturday morning we jumped on the excellent Adelaide tram in the middle of the city and rode to the end of the line at laid back Glenelg for brunch and excellent coffee (no surprises there) at one of the many cafes clustered around the Jetty Road square to meet up with John, Eileen and Dot, all living the Aussie dream.

Later, we all soaked up the atmosphere – and the beer – with 5,000 other cycle-heads at the TDU’s expo and meet-the-teams extravaganza in Victoria Square. This Tour is clearly a Big Deal Down Under….world class pro cyclists pedalling around South Australia for 6 days, setting the scene for their Grand Tour ambitions later in the year.

John loves the informality of the TDU compared with the hullabaloo surrounding the Tour de France, and being able to approach and chat with his idols in their Hilton Hotel base, or at a restaurant. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the sport and each rider also added real flavour to this jamboree for us lesser cycling mortals.

The perfect bookend to this energetic day was dinner at a lively, unpretentious Italian restaurant back on Gouger Street, discussing cycling, Australia, family, friends and life over carbo-loading pasta and a couple of bottles of full-bodied Shiraz from the nearby McLaren Vale D’Arenberg winery.

Thanks to John, Eileen, Dot and Suzanne for a memorable lycra-clad day. Our own Aussie dream continues.

Day 4 – Sunday, January 18

Chris, still with a vague trace of his Scarborough accent after 11 years in Adelaide, sucked in his cheeks when we said we were off to the Rocket Rooftop Bar & Cinema on Hindley Street. Like a dodgy builder quoting for your extension

“Are we too old?”, I probed.

I’m too old”, he fizzed back. He might have been pushing 30. Gill and I have played around with the 50s for quite a while already…..

“Drug den”?

No reply.

We’d just enjoyed an excellent supper at Bread & Bone on Peel Street, an atmospheric laneway off Hindley in downtown Adelaide. Chris had served us B&B Burgers from the short but funky menu – top quality beef patties wedged into soft brioche buns, layered with smoky bacon, kewpie mayo, lettuce and crisp, vinegary house pickles. Nicely washed down with Napoloene apple cider, all the way from the Yarra. And enhanced by cool music wafting around the shabby chic industrial space.

The disconcertingly narrow entrance to the Rocket Bar was guarded by a polite but wide-pupilled doorman, and led to a steep, dark flight of stairs.

“So have you got a film on tonight?”. The website was somewhat unhelpful, advertising that The Royal Tenebaums would be showing on Sunday 23rd November. We’d been told about this venue by some German girls we’d shared a few drinks with on our first night in Adelaide, but the omens were not looking good….

“Yes. Two Hands“.

“Great. What time does that start?”.

“7:30, maybe 8”.

“And how much are the tickets?”

“Nothing. They’re free”. Curiouser and curiouser…..

We were back at just before 7:30. The scary first flight of stairs led to a scuzzy landing, covered entirely with fading posters of presumably old rock gigs held at the venue. And then to another dark, scary, scuzzy flight. And another.

You know you’re always told never to judge someone by the way they look? Well, I will never judge a Rooftop Cinema by its dingy entrance and shifty doorman again.

Sure, the place was a bit scruffy but, as we emerged onto the rooftop and into late evening sunshine bouncing across the Adelaide skyline, we took in the cocktail bar, sizzling barbecue and Corona sponsored blue beanbags, and all was well with the world.

The movie didn’t start until almost 9, but after a couple of cold beers, free popcorn and a wickedly funny tale about criminal Aussies, in the style of Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, we didn’t care.

Earlier in the day, we’d taken the tram to the seaside suburb of Glenelg again for coffee and brunch, before a pretty amazing 10 km walk to Holdfast Bay and Brighton Beach. The outward leg mainly on the elevated promenade, with the return stroll on the soft white sand, waves of the Southern Ocean breaking near our feet and breezes providing some small relief from the increasing inland temperature.

Day 5 – Monday, January 19

You often hear of fusion cuisine, a perfect blend of different food sources enhanced as a whole, rather than diminished.

The Adelaide Oval is the sporting equivalent, controversially updated a year or so ago at a cost of more than A$500 million to be fit for the 21st century, but fortunately in a way that also retains its history from all the way back to 1871.

We did the official tour on a warm, sunny January morning, crossing the river from our city hotel to explore this iconic stadium.

The volunteer led a group of around 10 of us, Gill and I being the only Poms amongst Aussies and natural targets after decades of cricketing defeats.

We were given a brilliant insight into the history of the Oval, one of the world’s most picturesque sporting venues. Century old Morton Bay fig trees, the grassed northern mound (from earth dredged from the nearby Torrens River),  and the heritage scoreboard – very analogue in this digital age – all rightly still represent a proud past. But the high tech structure of the new stands, the quality of the hospitality facilities and the backstage facilities all scream “welcome to the present day”.

The tour was supposed to last for 90 minutes but extended to 2 hours as nobody wanted to curtail the experience. And then there’s also the Bradman Museum to explore…even an Englishman can only admire the Don’s achievements. He hung up his cricket bat with a career Test Match average of 99.94, and that after a 2nd ball duck in his final match. He was subsequently also a doughty performer with golf clubs and squash rackets in his hand.

Gill is not the world’s greatest cricket fan but she loved the whole Oval experience. Just a shame that we weren’t able to see a Big Bash game or a Test Match while we’re in South Australia. We’ll just have to come back….

Later, we enjoyed a leisurely and liquid lunch with John, Eileen and Dot at the Adelaide Hilton Hotel, home of the riders and press machine for the Tour Down Under. John & Eileen bumped into a young Australian rider they seemed to know well – Campbell Flakemore, a 22 year-old Tasmanian who recently won a gold medal at the world Under-23 world championships time trial.  He’s with the BMC team, led by Aussie cycling God Cadel Evans for this Tour Down Under. What a humble lad Campbell seemed, especially considering his achievements and his potential – Cadel himself is just about to retire and has anointed the lad as a superstar of the future. Remember….you heard it here first.

Day 6 – Tuesday, January 20

After a few days in Adelaide, it was time to head out of the city and explore the wide open spaces of South Australia.

An old Aussie work mate from the UK, Bruce – yes, that really is his name – recommended we have lunch at D’Arry’s Verandah Restaurant on the D’Arenberg winery in the McLaren Vale area, south of Adelaide.

So we hopped, kangaroo-like, into our rented Toyota and headed to epicurean and oenophile paradise.

The D’Arenberg winery cellar door and restaurant are classy but understated, in a typically Aussie way. And the ambience encouraged us to push the metaphorical boat out. You know when you’re all relaxed and think that you might as well do something bold and outrageous, just in case you’re struck down by a flying wombat, or gobbled up by a Great White Shark…..

The 8 course degustation menu, with matching wines, would brook no denial. For the next 4 hours we indulged in course after course of exquisite food, washed down with 2 wines – yes, 2 – for each dish.

It all became a bit of a self-indulgent blur but stand-out dishes were the signature lobster medallion with blue swimmer crab & prawn tortellini, and lobster bisque; and the pink gin cured salmon with beetroot rye toast, cucumber jelly, fried capers and keta caviar. The puddings – passion fruit souffle with cream, and soft centred chocolate pudding with chocolate ice cream – were none too shabby either.

The D’Arenberg wines have jolly names like The Money Spider Roussanne, The Hermit Crab Viognier or The Noble Wrinkled Riesling but strewth mate, do they taste bonzer.

With outstanding but friendly service this was a great way to spend a few hours in a hopefully long life. It would have eaten up all our holiday dosh had it not been for a generous contribution from my Mum & Dad, but it was worth every Aussie Dollar. Theirs and ours. And thanks to Bruce for the recommendation.

Later, back at The Retreat on Chapel Hills winery estate, we went for a short stroll in the adjacent Onkaparinga National Park. As the shadows lengthened and the tinder-dry grass crunched under our sated bodies, we saw our first kangaroos bouncing around in the wild. Or did we? We’d got through a fair few gallons of wine, mate…..

Day 7 – Wednesday, January 21

Built in Belfast in 1868 the 3-masted iron ship, Star of Greece, ran into a violent storm off Port Willunga in the early hours of July 13, 1888. She was a regular visitor to Adelaide and bound for England with her cargo of wheat when disaster struck. There’s some confusion but most reckon that at least 17 poor souls perished that day.

Every cloud….., as they say. The Star of Greece bistro now commemorates the unfortunate ship, and is perched shyly on the shallow cliffs above the shimmering waters of Gulf St Vincent, off the west coast of South Australia below Adelaide.

Gill and I dropped into the cafe on a whim, late one afternoon on our road trip of the Fleurieu Peninsula as we headed back to Adelaide. They were fully booked but found us a spot on the balcony outside, directly overlooking the picture-perfect beach and in Pom-searing heat, despite the lateness of the hour. The service was so considerate that they conjured up a couple of wide-brimmed hats to protect our already burnt northern hemisphere faces from further punishment.

1 Southern Ocean kingfish sashimi with smoked Goolwa cockles, 1 serving of Spencer Gulf king prawns with green chilli and lime salsa, 1 Kangaroo Island salt & pepper squid with Yuzu mayo, 1 barramundi fish with a quinoa crust, and a couple of exquisitely chilled glasses of wine later, and we were really missing home. Really.

Earlier in the day, we had headed south from our overnight base in the affluent McLaren Vale wine area towards Victor Harbor (yes, spelt the dodgy US way) towards the southern tip of the Peninsula. But that town felt a bit too kiss-me-quick for our Surrey sensitivities, its Victorian heritage undone by a few more recent town planners.

My abiding memory of Victor Harbor will be John, a  sprightly weather-beaten host at the Tourist Office. He went to the UK and mainland Europe for the global Scout Jamboree in 1957, as a 21 year-old . He was away from Australia for 6 months, of which 2 were spent on a boat, forced around the southern tip of Africa on the way out because of the Suez crisis. He preferred Denmark to England, but has never returned to either. Yet.

We liked the sleepy nearby hamlet of Goolwa, with its local Steam Exchange Brewery serving small tasters of excellent ales and Hector’s, a sea shanty-like cafe right on the water in the shadow of the Hindmarsh Island bridge, but serving sophisticated food with a relaxed marine ambience.

Returning north our jaws dropped at the string of long, sandy and almost deserted beaches lining the Gulf’s coastline. Locals drive their roo-busting 4 WD wagons straight onto the sand, but we wandered down on foot and dipped our white toes into the cooling water of Sellicks Beach, before slurping ice creams on the path above Aldinga Conservation Park, its boardwalk descending to the water like the elongating ladder from a toy truck.

We’d like to have explored Kangaroo Island too whilst in South Australia but with another road trip to see Gill’s family in nearby Wallaroo to come, we’d run out of time. But a couple of days exploring the McLaren Vale and Fleurieu Peninsula were a good option. And the image of those beaches and the view from the Star of Greece cafe will stay long in the memory.

Day 8 – Thursday, January 22

A quiet day for our Grand Slam tour, after a full-on week exploring Adelaide and its environs.

To the famous Central Market this morning, South Australia’s main food hub for over 140 years. A covered market with more than 250 stalls, this fills the memory bank of most local people, either as reluctant children or practical parents.

It’s got a typically laid back Aussie vibe, but also bustles with commercial imperative.

We sat down at the legendary Zuma’s cafe for coffee and breakfast. The official Zuma’s half breakfast – toast, eggs, mushrooms and enough bacon to start a Middle Eastern war – sated both Gill and me. Healthy appetites, these Aussies.

Artisan cheeses and breads. Fresh fruit and veg stalls. Fish, with scary barramundi eyes staring straight at you. Dry goods. Novelty t-shirt shop – why do I need GOOGLE when I have my wife? Asian influenced produce from nearby Chinatown. The market is a feast of all the senses….smell, dribble, touch, taste, eat until you can take no more.

And then sit down with a coffee from The Grind, blending beans from Kenya, Colombia and Costa Rica in their espresso, and serving in a pop-up al fresco cafe on Grote Street today, as well as on their market stall.

We took the easy option and bought something for lunch at one counter, rather than concocting our own multi-stalled picnic. Leek and gruyere quiche, sweetcorn and feta fritter, salads of mung bean in ginger & soy and mango and black-eyed beans were savoured in 30c heat, under the welcome shade of a tree down by the river, exotic birds squawking and screeching around us, flashing plumages of vivid blue and green.

We ventured further, to the part of North Adelaide we hadn’t seen before, via the imposing statue of Colonel William Light, looking down from the highest point of the city that he designed in the 1830s. Not sure what he’d have made of the recently expanded Oval, but he should be very proud of the beautiful and enduring city he imagined.

We’re off on our next road trip now, visiting Gill’s family up-country in Wallaroo, about 2 hours on the coast north west of the city….with a pit-stop at the famous Barossa Valley wine district, obviously. Look for a final update on the Adelaide leg of our Grand Slam Tour Down Under on Sunday.

Days 9 & 10 – Friday, January 23 & Saturday, January 24

Another road trip from our Adelaide city base, another hire car. To Wallaroo, a couple of hours north west from Adelaide and on the top edge of the Yorke Peninsula, staring out into the turquoise water of the Spencer Gulf.

Why Wallaroo? To see Gill’s Aunt Margaret, last seen in the UK about 10 years ago; Gill’s cousin Sharon, last seen in the UK in 1964, aged 11 months and just before her parents set sail for Down Under; other cousins and partners and children of cousins who Gill had never met before.

We made a quick detour to the Barossa Valley en route to Wallaroo, loving Tanunda, the sleepy main town of the glorious grape-growing region, vine after vine tumbling down gently rolling hillscapes and responding to the perfect climatic conditions.

We sipped a couple of chilled, crisp whites at the Seppeltsfield Winery Cellar Door, accompanied by a glorious platter of local meats and cheeses and eaten under the watchful eye of a hungry kookaburra bird.

After endless miles of Roman-straight almost completely traffic-free roads (delayed only by a freight train with 106 carriages, roughly the length of Surrey), the rolling hills gave way to flat dusty plains and we arrived in Wallaroo to a warm welcome from Margaret.  Later, we were joined by several of the family for a fun night at the local Hotel/Pub for generous Aussie suppers and a couple of welcome cold ones.

Back at Margaret’s, Gill shared photos of the expanding UK branch of the family and pieced together the different strands of the Aussie clan on a makeshift family tree.

On Saturday, Margaret took us on a tour to nearby Port Hughes, where she and Bill had built their first home in Australia, as well as to beautiful beaches at Simms Cove and Moonta Bay. Then more family meetings in Kadina and Moonta in a whirlwind version of Who Do You Think You Are?

Huge thanks to Margaret for her amazing hospitality towards a couple of strange Poms, and for the rest of the family in making us so welcome. A great, if brief, road trip that hopefully means Gill and her Aussie rellies will be just that little bit closer, emotionally if not physically.

Day 11 – Sunday, January 25

A fitting finale for our last full day in Adelaide, as it’s also the 6th & final stage of this year’s Tour Down Under, the first UCI World Tour event of the year where the pros shake the cobwebs off their almost weightless machines and start gearing up for the main European Tours later in the year.

This is a big day for the city and for South Australia. The TDU brings in significant tourist dollars, judging from the number of lycra-clad amateur pedallers we’ve seen on the roads, in cafes and in our hotel lobby and lifts over the last week.

This final stage is based entirely in the city, with 20 laps of a fast 4.5 km circuit, heading up and down the main artery of a now tram-free King William Street, with a scarily tight turn by the Tour Village in Victoria Square, and then a loop around the iconic Adelaide Oval sports stadium. The expected time of 2 hours gives you an idea of the fitness and speed these guys have under their belts.

Some roads have been closed since 6 am and there’s already a carnival atmosphere when Gill and I leave the hotel to plan our TDU day. Young kids are hurtling around their own timed mini circuit; a costumed kangaroo mascot high fives keen spectators, already in place by the railings, his outsize wobbly bottom following some time later; sponsors hand out freebies from gaudy vehicles in the nearby parade ground car park; the tannoy system churns out endless information about the race and riders, alongside inspirational music.

Rohan Dennis, the young Aussie rider with the BMC team, leads SKY’s Richie Porte by a whole 2 seconds after an epic hill climb on yesterday’s stage failed to close the gap completely. Cadel Evans lies 3rd, the legendary Aussie rider competing in his penultimate pro event before hanging up his bicycle clips. He remains the only Aussie to have won the Tour de France so far.

Gill and I are accosted by a crew representing the South Australia Tourist Board and, after being professionally mic’d up, are happy to talk to camera about how much we’ve enjoyed SA, Adelaide and the TDU. In that much overused phrase….what’s not to like?

We watch the first couple of laps by the barrier near the start on King William Street, before walking to join friends John, Eileen and Dot who are watching the race unfold on a big screen in the seated and shaded comfort of the Tour Village on Victoria Square.

It’s scary, the speed and proximity with which over 100 whippet-like cyclists propel their machines on the fast downward stretch of King William Street. Their racing etiquette and level of mutual trust must be nigh on perfect to avoid more frequent serious accidents.

As expected, given the nature and relative shortness of this final stage, there are a few token breakaways from the peloton, all reeled in, a sprint finish won by the the Dutch rider Wouter Wippert, and no change to the overall top 3 standings. 37 year-old Cadel Evans anoints Rohan Dennis, BMC team-mate and fellow Aussie, as his worthy successor.

We jump on the tram to Glenelg to join John, Eileen, Dot & Suzanne for an end-of-tour supper at their favourite place and cyclist’s hangout, the Europa.

Glenelg is awash with late evening sunshine and youthful hormones (not ours). Local lads cruise the streets in their throaty restored American vintage limos, as the girls totter on vertiginous heels towards the current hot bar. short tight skirts clinging to their tanned legs like my brother to his wallet.

A great piece of barramundi fish, some local wines, emotional farewells and the first leg of our Grand Slam tour is almost at an end.

Tomorrow is Australia Day and we’ll head to Melbourne, where I believe some tennis is being played……

Day 12 – Monday, January 26

Australia Day, and we’re spending most of it on a train covering the 828 km from Adelaide to Melbourne.

Not just any train though…The Overland, operating since 1887 and a chance to see some of the real Australian landscape in relative comfort. Much slower and more expensive than flying, but it’s better to travel than to arrive, right?

An early start with an 07:40 departure from Adelaide, arriving in Melbourne at 18:50 after moving the clock 30 minutes forward for a time change difference between South Australia and Victoria.

The Overland train is a bit of a functional relic from the past but retains a faded charm. It’s not overloaded with contemporary facilities but its few carriages are wide and each seat has enough legroom for the Harlem Globetrotters. And we’ve upgraded to Blue Premium, whatever that means….

The train trundles, wheezes and squeaks through mile after mile of stark Aussie landscape, the scrub-like plains enlivened only by the more fertile, rolling hills outside Adelaide, and when we cross the mighty Murray River on a historic, rickety bridge. Otherwise there’s not much evidence of anything other than industrial-strength agriculture.

At Nhill, the hamlet is dominated by wheat and sheep, and the train rumbles past the largest grain silo in the northern hemisphere, built way back in the 1920s.

What houses there are along the entire route look flimsy, and everyone seems to collect rusting second-hand cars and obsolete fridges behind their corrugated iron fences.

There’s a driver change in Dimboola, a wheat town on the Wimmera river and pretty much halfway to our Victorian destination.

The onboard train staff are friendly and informative and, thanks to our upgrade, we’re served regular meals and refreshments at our seats…although it’s good to stretch the ageing legs by exploring the adjacent dining car a couple of times.

Sadly we only spot 1 kangaroo in the entire 828 km….although we may have been dozing for approximately 414 km. He was bouncing along a starkly bare field, in splendid isolation and looking for all the world as though he was late for an appointment.

In the carriage, our immediate neighbour for the whole journey was a menacing-looking, wiry middle-aged Aussie. He could have been the love child of genial Harry Grout, the gimley-eyed fixer in Porridge’s Slade Prison, and a tethered British bulldog. Evil tattoos etched on his punching hands; short, muscled neck; gold earring glistening on his left lobe; chunky knuckle-duster rings on his pinky fingers; sunglasses perched on top of his tanned, almost bald head. I let him use the toilet first.

We pulled into Melbourne station a few minutes ahead of schedule, despite taking almost 45 minutes to trundle through its sprawling, graffitied suburbs. A short walk later we were meeting Linda Pk and being taken up 21 floors to her apartment on 350 William Street….ours for 1 night only, thanks to the miracle of Airbnb.

I just about noticed the spectacular unrestricted views from the balcony, across the north and western suburbs of the city,  before collapsing in bed from the sore throat and flu bug that had lurked for a couple of days.

No Australia Day fireworks for me, I’m afraid, but still looking forward to a week in multicultural Melbourne and especially to the Aussie Open, the raison d’etre of the Grand Slam Down Under Tour.

Day 13 – Tuesday, January 27

Checked into our rather posh Melbourne hotel – The Langham – late morning, and I was as bouncy as a kangaroo on speed to be handed our welcome pack from Sportsnet by the liveried concierge.

I’d booked the tennis and hotel package almost a year ago, and wasn’t expecting much more than the tickets for the semi-final sessions on Thursday and Friday.

But in our sumptuous 19th floor room, overlooking the mighty Yarra river, we unearthed a quality rucksack each,  baseball caps, sunscreen, folding seats for those sensitive Pom bums, a poshly printed itinerary, our Myki visitor value pack for exploring the city….and a rather fetching leatherette man-bag containing the all-important tickets and dangly lanyard thingies.  Strewth mate, welcome to the Aussie Open.

I’d also joined the official AO body a while back, which gave us general access to the grounds and outside courts for 1 day….so we ambled in the direction of Melbourne Park, crossing the river and dodging energetic joggers and cyclists at the same time as dozens of rowing crews were put through their paces by megaphoned coaches on the other bank. Sporty bunch, these Aussies.

We enjoyed a cracking few hours introduction to the Open, watching some snippets of games on outside courts as well as on a couple of the show courts, seeing Sharapova The Grunter outclass young Ms Bouchard on the big screen as we munched through dodgy hot dogs, and then witnessed the sad demise of Rafa Nadal at the hands of Berdych, from the comfort of the Game, Set & Match suite, courtesy of the AO membership.

A good warm up for the day’s main event, young Aussie pretender Nick Kyrgios taking on our very own – well, Scotland’s – Andy Murray, being played out in the night session on the main Rod Laver Arena.

We ended up watching that start in the Crown Riverside area, cold tinnies in hand, and conclude back in the comfort of our hotel suite. Andy Murray played really well to squash the hopes of the young pretender – and the entire Australian nation – and we’re really excited that we’ll be at the Rod Laver Arena to see him play against Berdych for a place in the final. Andy, not Rod.

Day 14 – Wednesday, January 28

Orientation day for us in Melbourne today. A city sandwich, between a tennis hors d’oeuvres session yesterday and our main course on Thursday & Friday, the Aussie Open semi-finals, out at Melbourne Park.

Smug from our morning gym & swim session in the posh Langham’s spa, on the 9th floor and with a rather spectacular view across the Yarra to the skyscrapers on the north bank, we strolled across one of the many bridges at about 11 am, in warmer temperatures than yesterday and almost cloudless skies. Thinking about the wintry conditions back home and snowmageddon forecast for the east coast in the US, obviously.

We’d been impressed by the free city buses and trams in Adelaide, now we were hopping on the free trams trundling along Flinders Street, past the historic station, seemingly every few minutes.

The plan was to ride number 35, which does a full circuit of the inner city, to get our Melburnian bearings. But we eventually realised that doesn’t run until 12 pm, so jumped on the next one heading west and ended up at the Waterfront area, by the impressive Etihad stadium. These Etihads seem to be taking over the world…or sponsoring it, at least.

The Waterfront and Dockland areas were rammed with office workers heading out for a smoke or early lunch at the many eateries. New apartment blocks pierce the skies and shiny bling-boats bob around in the water as evidence of an affluent economy.

We successfully hopped onto a number 35, differentiated from the other trams by its period livery and enlightening on-board tourist commentary on points of interest around the route.

Heading east, we trundled along the length of La Trobe Street, past Flagstaff Gardens where we had Airbnb’d our first night, near Queen Victoria market to the north (on the list for later), past the imposing State Library of Victoria building, close to the Old Melbourne Gaol before hitting Carlton Gardens for the turn south.

Spontaneously we jumped off at the impressive Parliament building on Spring Street, wanting to roam the city’s innards on foot, like feral animals looking for rich pickings away from the main feeding grounds.

We’d heard about Melbourne’s famous laneways, the smaller streets tucked away off the main intersections, so we zigged and we zagged our way south and west. We were rewarded with the city’s treasures….boutiques, restaurants and bars concealed down atmospheric alleyways, or in well-preserved covered Victorian malls, like the famous Block Arcade.

But we ventured east again, and south, to Gazi’s at the junction of Exhibition and Flinders Streets, for a late lunch. Why? Because we’re sad Masterchef fans and the owner George Calombaris is one of the Aussie version’s star presenters……the bald Greek one who can cook. Like a more talented Greg Wallace.

Gazi’s is a cool, relatively new restaurant in a cavernous, shabby chic space. The menu has dirty Greek food as one section. Apparently that’s a good thing, and we enjoyed the waiter’s suggestion of combining calamari (with pine nuts, capers, cucumber & grilled apricots) and grilled saganaki cheese (with balsamic honey and lemon). Greek tapas…social & sharing. But we also wanted some clean anti-social nourishment so we added chicken souvlaki (with parsley, onion, and mustard mayo) and roasted beetroot salad (with hommus, goat’s curd, purple carrot, toursi red onion and cherry dressing). Washed down with a couple of glasses at rose……at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Outrageous behaviour.

All lovely, thanks George….I think we’ll put you through to the next round.

Just about time to complete the circuit – by foot – back to Flinders Street station and then across the river to see the movie Wild at the Crown complex.

Phew. Thanks, Melbourne….I think we’re going to like you.

Later, at the al fresco riverside Foxtel set-up, we saw the final set of Novak Djokovich sweeping aside the young Raonic as if extricating a small piece of grit from his eye.

So the main course is now ready to eat…..Murray v  Berdych tomorrow, Wawrinka v Djokovich on Friday. Mouth-watering.

Day 15 – Thursday, January 29

Two of the enduring passions of my long life have been sport and travel. I’ve fallen painfully out of love with some things and a few people, but those two addictions have remained remarkably constant.

To be in Melbourne today to see the Australian Open mens’ semi final between Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych  combines both sport and travel in an intoxicating alchemy. Walking from the city along the Yarra river, leaving the shiny skyscrapers behind and approaching one of the world’s greatest sporting arenas is a rare privilege.

Thanks to our Sportsnet package, we’ve got excellent seats about 12 rows from the front, on one corner of the court. We’re in position about half an hour before the 7:30 pm start, chatting to the elderly US couple next to us…he’s surprised her with a trip to Australia and to the Open, and then on to New Zealand, to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary. Passion.

The Rod Laver Arena is gladiatorial. The retractable roof slides effortlessly closed as the appointed hour approaches, presumably to accentuate the drama through lighting and music…because as the players warm up, they open it up again to reveal the still bright Melbourne sunshine, and to let in the surprisingly lively and cool wind.

Andy starts the first set as though he doesn’t want to be there. Tomas is hitting the ball much more cleanly, and producing searing winners. Andy is fiddling with a dodgy left ankle, and then a right thigh or knee, casting anxious glances towards his entourage and struggling to stay in the set.

Slowly, alongside his renowned defensive qualities, his confidence and momentum seem to improve. But not enough to save the first set, which he does well to take to a tie-break.

But thereafter he’s in the ascendancy, taking the next two sets 6-0 and 6-3. He’s in control of more rallies, moving his opponent around the baseline like a marionette and his puppets. Berdych’s energy is being sapped.

As with all sporting occasions, it’s as much about the peripheral incidents, people and smells around you that create a compelling occasion.

The 4 Andy Murrays stand up during end changes to belt out eulogies to their man, clearly well rehearsed over a few beers in one of their Scottish living rooms during the dark days of winter. A few other Brits closer to us chug pint after pint, are less rehearsed and become more and more abusive. The corporate suits immediately behind us discuss telecoms deals. Seagulls inhabit the night sky and float around the open roof, illuminated like dancers in a ballet. The smell of an Asian noodle dish tickles the nostrils.

The 4th set is closer but Andy takes it 7-5 and is into his 4th AO final…having lost the other three. In the immediate on-court interview, he pays tribute to his female coach Amelie Mauresmo and hints at the tension in the first set being due to his ex-trainer now coaching Tomas.

A great night. A great sporting – and travel – occasion. A great result.

And the perfect conclusion to a day in which we had earlier dub beneath Melbourne’s skin, after the previous day’s circular orientation tour.

We had enjoyed a brilliant brunch at Sally’s Kitchen,  spontaneously bought tickets for Baz Luhrmann’s musical production of Strictly Ballroom on Sunday afternoon, admired the architecture of the Royal Exhibition and Melbourne Museum in Carlton Gardens, stood in Ned Kelly’s cell during the moving tour of Melbourne Gaol, whizzed through the free Bohemia exhibition at the Melbourne Library, and enjoyed sundowner beers on the remarkable Ponyfish Island in the middle of the Yarra.

And then enjoyed a satisfying pre-tennis tapas supper at La Citta in the dingy Degraves Laneway, off Flinders Street. Crumbed eggplant chips with chipotle mayonnaise. Pork & beef meatballs with Napoli sauce. Lamb shank arancini. Smoked confit duck with croutons and cournichons.

Travel. Sport. Food. Beer. Wine.

So many passions in one short day.

Day 16 – Friday, January 30

Midnight in Melbourne and just back from an epic day at the Australian Open tennis tournament.

We were there for the twilight session as part of our package today, compared with the night session yesterday when we saw Andy Murray edge past Tomas Berdych to reach his 4th AO Open final.

The afternoon part of today’s order of play gave us a mixed doubles semi final and the ladies doubles final, both on the Rod Laver Arena main show court. Good tennis in both matches, but lacking in atmosphere with a huge number of empty seats….which did at least allow us to creep down to the posh seats just a few rows back from the court.

The main event was the 2nd mens semi final between defending champion, Stan Wawrinka, and the current world no. 1 Novak Djokovich. True to recent form between these two, they served up a 5 set epic. It somehow epitomised the ebb and flow of life….one moment you think you have life figured out and with your goal in sight, but if you take your eye off the ball for a brief moment – BAM – you’re behind the curve again, have to re-energise, refocus and steel your nerves for another monumental effort to reach the winning post.

As I saw it, Novak would win in the end thanks to his remarkable consistency, and defensive retrieving ability. I haven’t seen the stats, but I can’t imagine he made that many unforced errors. Stan, conversely, has a backhand as pure as unrefined silk and can fire off outrageous winners at will. But he is prone to making too many errors.

Another classic. Just maybe Novak has lost some of the gas from his legs as a result of tonight’s long and emotionally draining match, but I still fear he’ll have the edge over Andy Murray in the final on Sunday. And he’s already beaten him in two AO finals.

But I’d like to be wrong………

Day 17 – Saturday, January 31

When you’re travelling it’s nice to push the culinary boat out occasionally, but it’s just as rewarding to eat simply – as the locals do – to get under the real skin of a city.

Strolling through Melbourne’s main shopping precinct on Bourke Street on a busy Saturday, we wandered off into the maze of more atmospheric laneways and narrow covered malls.

Within earshot of an ageing accordionist playing hackneyed but romantic old tunes, we ate in a tiny and basic cafe, hunched up at a narrow counter and surrounded by industrial-size bags of quinoa and enough coffee beans to keep neighbourly barista Simon Ware grinding away for a year or two.

Delicious, healthy and generous portions of chicken waldorf and pumpkin & chickpea salads were just $6.90 each, about £7 for both, eaten reading the local Melburnian newspapers, listening to the old accordionist and people-watching.

In the evening, we ended up climbing the dingy stairs off a dark alleyway between Bourke and Little Collins Streets to eat at The Waiters Restaurant. Opened in 1947 – and with decor, tables and curtains barely changed since then – this humble eaterie was once a place for Italian & Spanish waiters to unwind after work. Anyone can go now, but the simple ethos remains the same.

No wine list, just red or white offered verbally. We had a couple of glasses of excellent Shiraz in petrol-station giveaway tumblers.

No menu, just a blackboard of regular dishes and one with the specials.  We both had pasta, with garlic bread on the side. Honest, wholesome food delivered without pretension. Buonissimo! And all for A$60/£30.

The service was equally simple, but friendly, from two young English girls…one from The Wirrall, studying at St Kildas for a year as part of her International Business degree course in Leeds; the other from Stamford, having fun and with no idea how the rest of her life would unfold.

The Aussie boss wandered amiably around, until huddled by the side of the radio blaring out by the open kitchen counter……The Socceroos were in the final of the Asian Cup against South Korea, and were 2 minutes from glory when the Koreans equalised. The food might have suffered from that point on…..*

Earlier in the day, we had done the official Neighbours tour. Gill is ever so slightly addicted to this Aussie soap, and this was a small price to pay for inflicting 3 days of tennis on her.

It was a fun way to spend a few hours, but somehow the functional, small street (actually suburban Pin Oak Court) and outdoor sets back in the Fremantle Media TV studio lot undermined the glossy vision of what end up on our TV screens. Another dream shattered….

But fortunately the subsequent dining experiences, as humble as they were, reinvigorated the soul.

Less is definitely very much more.

* the Aussies scored again in extra time to win the Asian Cup. Phew!

Day 18 – Sunday, February 01

Yesterday was our penultimate day in Melbourne before moving on to Tasmania. It was one of those days when everything was nearly good….but ultimately wasn’t. And ultimately is what counts, right?

I’ve admired crazy and original Aussie Baz Luhrmann for years. He announced himself to the wider world with that thrilling, ground-breaking version of Romeo & Juliet in 1996, starring a very young Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes.

Back in 1992 he had written and co-directed the Aussie film Strictly Ballroom. Well, he’s now directing a stage musical version here in Melbourne, and we had got hold of tickets for the Sunday afternoon matinee.

If you can suspend your disbelief completely, love sequins and a soppy storyline, this one’s for you. But you could smell the cheese in Adelaide, I reckon. The best part for me was the brilliant Latino dance that closed out the first half, and the rousing adage a life lived in fear is a life half lived, epitomising the need to be creative rather than to conform.

But sorry Baz, this musical was only half good, and a little piece of me died on a grey Sunday afternoon in Melbourne.

The pre-match curry at the Red Pepper Indian restaurant just missed the mark too. Well reviewed, the first signs were promising….pale wood floors, exposed brickwork on the walls, gentle service and intoxicating smells emanating from the kitchen.

But our Lamb Pasand and Chicken Tikka Masala dishes were so-so, served on cold plates and not overly generous portions. The best part of the meal was the tandoori roti bread….but man cannot live on bread alone. So near and yet….

And then it was time to watch Andy Murray play Novak Djokovich in the final of the Australian Open. We’d seen both semi-finals and were looking forward to another epic match between these two warriors. It would have good to be there at the Rod Laver Arena ourselves, but we’d been quoted A$395/£200 for a single ticket a few days ago and had already pushed the boat out for our Melbourne hotel and semi-finals package with Sportsnet.

So we found a good pub, the Duke – Melbourne’s oldest licensed premises – on Flinders Street, from where we could see the stadium lights. And the screens were so large it was almost like we were there….

That gruelling 1st set lasted for well over an hour and Novak edged it 7-6. It was going to be a long night.

We watched the 2nd set in the cavernous outdoor/indoor space by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, further along Flinders Street. Even longer than the 1st, Andy won another tie-break.

We watched the denouement from the comfort of our Langham hotel suite, but sadly Andy Murray succumbed all too quickly and lost his 4th AO final, and the 3rd to the Djoker.

Andy seemed in better physical condition than Novak, especially after Djokovich wobbled around like a drunken Bambi during the second set. But there are now accusations that Novak was play-acting and Andy admits he was distracted by these antics. After being a service break up in the crucial 3rd set, Novak won 12 of the last 13 games to win his 5th AO title.

Andy’s collapse in another Grand Slam final was woeful. He worked so hard and played outstanding tennis to get there, but he must control his emotions better if he is to achieve what is so tantalisingly within his reach.

But nearly just isn’t good enough, right?

Day 19 – Monday, February 02

Our last day in Melbourne and it all seems to be about sport…..

The post mortem of the mens final of the Australian Open continues. Was Novak Djokovich faking injury? Why did Andy Murray collapse, again, so comprehensively….was it physical or mental weakness? And what was that demonstration all about, not covered on air but suspending play for quite a few minutes while the security guys ejected the culprits?

No matter. It’s no wonder the players call it The Friendly Slam, the Aussie Open is a fantastic tournament – for players and spectators alike – and having now completed my own personal Grand Slam, I can wholeheartedly recommend it to any tennis fan.

The Socceroos won the Asian Cup and all the newspapers are full of admiration for their boys.

And Cadel Evans, that Aussie cycling legend and only Aussie winner of the Tour de France, competed in his final pro race yesterday – The Great Ocean Road Race – and has now hung up his bicycle clips at the grand old age of 37.

A split party for Gill and me today. Gill has ventured out to the laundry and to explore the Botanic Gardens. I’m making another sporting pilgrimage to the magnificent Melbourne Cricket Ground, home to 100,000 spectators and scene of many more English defeats.

The Adelaide Oval tour was probably more enjoyable, the sheer scale of the MCG is overwhelming. But it’s hugely impressive, especially as it’s gearing up for the ICC World Cup in 10 days time. There are over 250 TV screens dotted around the stadium….the usual maker’s logo has to be covered up and replaced by the World Cup TV sponsor. Similar attention to detail is in evidence everywhere.

The tour gives a fascinating trip into the bowels of the stadium – the physio room, the players’s changing rooms, the press area, the dining facilities, the members’ Long Room and Committee Room, and much more.

And also in the MCG is the National Sports Museum.  For a relatively small country – in population rather than geographic terms – Australia punches way above its collective weight.

The Museum houses impressive memorabilia about its wide-ranging sporting success through the years, and much film reel about the MCG hosting the Olympics of 1956 and the Commonwealth Games in 2006.

My favourite parts of the extensive Museum exhibits were Ian Thorpe’s trainers – roughly twice the size of my own pathetically delicate feet – and the hologram of Shane Warne, talking about his career from the very MCG changing room that we had just explored.

If you love sport, Australia in January and early February is a pretty special place to be…although I suspect that’s the same for the rest of the year.

We’re off out now for our final supper in Melbourne, as glorious evening sunshine bounces off the Yarra river through our hotel room.

Not sure about connectivity in the Tasmanian wilderness for the next couple of weeks, so daily blogging might not be possible. And spending time in a camper van will be a far cry from luxury hotels in Adelaide and Melbourne……see you on the other side.

Monday, February 02 to Friday, February 13

Phew.

10 days in a camper van. 1,900 km trekking to all four windswept Tasmanian  coasts, across isolated bushland and wilderness, into alpine national parks, through declining mining communities and genteel Victorian towns.

And virtually no internet connectivity across Tassie until we’re back in Hobart now for the final few days of our epic Aussie adventure.

A few highlights:

  • 1st night’s camp site on remote South Bruny Island, after a ferry ride from Kettering on the mainland. Not advertised anywhere. Owned by Phil, the mad axeman. We had an astonishingly beautiful lagoon and white sandy beach all to ourselves, just a few short steps through towering eucalyptus trees. Shame it rained on the camp fire
  • sharing our barbecued supper with a family of wallabies – or were they pademelons (small wallaby like creatures, rather than Irish soft fruits) – at the eco camp Huon Bush Retreats in the Huon Valley

  • walking around Dove Lake, in the shadow of the iconic Cradle Mountain. A bit too popular with Nikon-toting Asian tourists for our liking, but undeniably picturesque

  • the unplanned time we spent at Strahan, on the remote west coast. Taking to the stage in Australia’s longest running play, The Ship That Never Was, about the brutal penal colony on nearby Sarah Island between 1822 & 1833. I was the drunken captain overthrown by the final 10 convicts who had built the Frederick ship from local materials, fearful of being transferred to the new penitentiary at Port Arthur, like the rest of the Sarah Island felons. Gill was the helmsman who sailed it 10,000 miles to Chile. An amazing true story of hard times told with a sense of humour, and with a lot of audience participation

  • an amazing boat trip from Strahan the following day, to Hell’s Gates which shelter Macquarie Harbour from more dangerous open waters, to the mouth of the iconic Gordon River and to Sarah Island, for an evocative tour which brought to life the brutality of the regime run there, before the final escape we had seen dramatised so entertainingly

  • motoring up the Tamar Valley from Launceston to remote Greens Beach on the windswept northern extremity, and enjoying a leisurely lunch and wine tasting at Velo, a winery owned by Micheal Wilson, a Tasmanian who cycled in the Olympics and competed in the Tour de France a couple of times, as well as in the other European Grand Tours, while living in France and Italy for 10 years

  • time spent at Bicheno, a small east coast seaside community, especially seeing the fairy penguins migrating at dusk from the nearby Governor Island sanctuary to their sandy onshore rookeries, just a few feet away from us

  • looking down at Wineglass Bay from the famous lookout point on the picturesque Freycinet Peninsula …and then spending time sunbathing on the almost deserted wide crescent of squeaky white sand as a school of 5 of 6 dolphins played lazily in the bay

  • the last night’s camp site, a spontaneous turn off the east coast road to Gumleaves, a 40 acre wildlife retreat where the wallabies bounced, the kookaburras laughed as our alarm call, and where an over-zealous possum scratched at the door of the only other camper van on the site….and then tried to climb in the vent on their roof . And where a poisonous 4 foot long tiger snake was lurking

And a couple of lowlights:

  • a scary 30 km+ camper van journey up and down vertiginous unprotected forested mountain tracks – gravel, not tarmac – in search of Pyengana, the place of happy cows and great cheese and ice cream. Apparently. We never made it. We got completely lost, a bit scared….and I almost turned the truck over in remote woodland, with no phone or internet signals and no hope of survival
  • passing through sad mining communities like Queenstown and Zeehan on the west coast, which had thrived a century ago but which now cling proudly to their industrial heritage whilst suffering from a much changed economy and a different way of life

Tassie is a place of incredible natural beauty, indigenous wildlife and remote communities. If we come again, there are some places I’d like to revisit, some I would miss out..and some we didn’t manage to see this time, like the Tasman Peninsula.

But what an adventure. Thanks to Gill for an epic 10 days – and camper van nights – in Tassie. That hot shower and soft bed in the Hobart hotel sure will feel good, though…..

Sunday, February 15

Imagine being locked up in solitary confinement in a completely dark and damp cell, 3 paces long and just 1 pace wide. For up to 3 months. In a faraway land.

That’s as good as it gets.

Now imagine having to work for more than 12 hours every day, oakum picking – meticulously unravelling, with your already raw hands – huge knotted ropes matted with tar and barnacles from the arduous 4 month sea crossing from England to Van Diemen’s Land. The knowledge that your efforts would be used for caulking the wooden seams of the weather-beaten ships would not be much consolation.

And now imagine having to do all that with the dreaded iron collar around your neck, a heavy metal instrument of torture, spiked and pulled so tightly that over the weeks and months you wear it – day and night – it rubs the flesh raw and damages your collarbone.

Worse still, you could be suffering all this ankle- or knee-deep in putrid water rushing down from Mount Wellington in the depths of winter.

Welcome to The Cascades Female Factory in Hobart, Van Diemen’s Land.

Yes, women – sometimes including girls as young as 11 – were subjected to these scarcely believable conditions. Between 1828 and 1856, at least 5,000 female convicts were transported from England to this newly settled island off the southern coast of Australia. And sometimes for having committed no worse a crime than stealing something to keep your family alive in times of abject poverty.

On arrival at the port in Hobart, you’d be subjected to the Walk of Shame, a 6 km march from Sullivan’s Cove to your new home, under the cover of darkness to avoid the lascivious intentions of the almost entirely male population.

There, you’d be stripped immediately of your hair, name, clothes and any remaining dignity.

If you obeyed the rigid rules, avoided conflict with bullying overseers and enjoyed an overdue slice of luck, the best you could hope for would be to work a long day in the laundry, scrubbing coarse clothes with your bare hands in freezing cold water. But at least you’d have the company of other convicts, even if complete silence was another strict rule.

But if you fell foul of the regime, off you’d go to solitary confinement…sometimes never to leave.

You might be picked out of the line one day, to go into a service with a family. But there was every chance life outside The Factory would be almost as harsh as within. And the most inhumane treatment of all was imposed if you became pregnant, whether through rape or your own indiscretion. For what good were you now?

Back inside The Factory, your newborn child would be weaned as quickly as possible, and you would be put back to work. With overcrowding and disease rife in the nursery, your baby would have only a 25% chance of surviving. At best, since official mortality records are quite likely to have been sugar-coated.

If your child saw its 2nd birthday in The Factory nursery, an orphanage would be next, followed by as normal a life as could be expected for a weak, socially inept progeny of a convict.

As for yourself, you might finally find a way out of The Factory if a successful application for marriage was made by any man who wanted to take a wife and raise a family in this new land. After all, the purpose of this convict transportation policy was colonisation, after a suitable period of punishment and contrition, wasn’t it?

It’s scarcely believable that this all happened less than 200 years ago.

And yet here we were, reliving such dreadful history on the site of The Cascades Female Factory on the outskirts of Hobart, high threatening walls in the shadow of Mount Wellington still intact, on a warm Sunday in February 2015.

Inside the walls, a few stones have been laid to delineate some of the cells and other defined areas within each yard. Otherwise pay for the Heritage Tour and, more importantly, make sure you immerse yourself in Her Story to bring the experience fully to life.

Her Story is a dramatised account of Mary, a convict sent to The Female Factory who becomes a victim of a brutal overseer’s bullying and endures the worst conditions described above. The other actor plays the overseer and a more kindly, well-intentioned doctor, and together they transport you back to the 19th century and all the horrors that women endured in this terrible place.

A chilling experience that made us ashamed to come from the country that dreamed up this vile policy. It may be a beautiful, enlightened country now but it certainly has a darker underbelly in its history.

Friday, February 13 to Monday, February 16

Well, it sure was nice to sleep in  a comfy and spacious hotel room in Hobart after 10 days – and nights – exploring Tasmania’s coasts and wildernesses in the confines of a camper van.

The Old Woolstore is an attractive conversion of an old industrial building, in a good city location, in much the same way as the amazing transformation of the old IXL Jam Factory by the dock is now the beautiful Henry Jones Art Hotel, and the old Gas Works is an atmospheric winery cellar door.

We enjoyed Hobart but were only there for 3 nights and, battery-recharging after a hyperactive tour of Tassie, opted to chill out rather than chase all the conventional sightseeing targets.

But we did spend Saturday morning at the renowned 300-stall Salamanca Market, loved wandering around the dock area seeing the crayfish pots unloaded, and on Sunday walked the 3-4 km out of the city on the Hobart Rivulet Path to be shocked out of our smug 21st century complacency visiting The Female Factory.

And we also explored the genteel Victorian suburb of Battery Point, where we succumbed – twice – to the irresistible delights of Jackman & McRoss, a bakery & deli that every neighbourhood should have. In fact, we should have talked to them about opening up a franchise in Godalming…..

But our overriding memories of Hobart will also be tinged with sadness, as it was a stepping off point for successive European explorers culminating in the British invasion of Van Diemen’s Land, our genocide of the indigenous Aborigines in the 1820s and subsequent colonisation of the island with transported convicts, horrifically abused until they had earned their free ticket.

Not to say that detracted in any way from our enjoyment of a naturally beautiful island and its relaxed capital city, but its history was rightly in our faces in the museum, in The Female Factory, in guide books and on illumination story boards around the dock area.

But Hobart and Tasmania are great 21st century holiday destinations, and I’m very pleased we included them on the Grand Slam Tour 2015.

Tuesday, February 17

We’re sitting in Singapore’s Changi Airport, trying to get through 5 hours in transit during the long trek home.

The Grand Slam Tour 2015 is nearly over, after 5 amazing weeks exploring Adelaide for 10 days, a couple of road trips in South Australia, a fun train journey across the border to Victoria, a week in Melbourne – including seeing the Aussie Open tennis – and 2 weeks in Tasmania, 10 days on the road in a camper van and a few fun days in Hobart.

So what have we learnt?

That the earth is round, that Aussies are the friendliest people on the planet, that wallabies are like kangaroos with thalidomide…and that Andy Murray is still mentally weak against Novak Djokovich.

Thanks to all Gill’s Aussie family, old friends John & Eileen and new friends met along the way for making us so welcome and for ensuring we had a really memorable Grand Slam Tour Down Under.

And huge thanks to Gill for being away from home for 5 weeks with me, and for sharing our Great Big Aussie Adventure. Pretty amazing, eh?

We’ll be back…..

 

14 thoughts on “Australia – The Grand Slam Tour 2015”

    1. Still alive, John. Just. 10 days trucking around wild Tasmania. Great adventure. Highlights just posted on the blog for your entertainment….

  1. Have thoroughly enjoyed your “Blog on the go”, it kept us up to date with your travels and made the five weeks go by in a flash.
    Look forward to seeing all the snaps.
    Have a safe journey home.
    Pa

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