Nobody looks their best after 24 hours on a plane. Nevertheless the passengers of Singapore Airlines flight 227 from London to Melbourne, via a brief and surreal 4 hour stopover in Singapore’s Changi Airport, which has a butterfly room, koi carp in a water feature grotto and massage chairs for tired humans, became blearily animated as the lights of Melbourne appeared under one wing. The first tinge of dawn was appearing behind a distant range of hills, and the golden lights were laid out in gridiron fashion, rather like an American city. This impression was soon dispelled by the airport itself, which looked as if it had been cobbled together from the bits left over from Heathrow: the same bilious yellow signs, the same rattling bathroom doors, grey laminated surfaces and a decidedly utilitarian approach. Singapore Airport has decided that it wants as little as possible to do with the tedious business of flying – one might conceivably spend a pleasant day there in the manner of some tourist attraction. Melbourne has a stoicism that says: “It’s a bloody long way to get here, so just deal with it”.
The towns of the Goldfields begin about an hour’s drive north of Melbourne, heading into central Victoria. In the 19th century gold was discovered, and small settlements sprung up in the consequent boom. They retain something of a Wild West feel to this day, with clapboard-fronted buildings and a squarish, functional architecture. The bank, the law firm… all the essential components of a society starting from scratch, as if they had an unconscious blueprint to work from. The police stations are new, however: both Kyneton and Bendigo have new headquarters which are all reflective glass and breezeblock, looking as if they were designed to repel a missile attack. Above the town hall the flag of Australia flaps in the breeze next to the Aboriginal flag – a yellow sun on a red and black background. The streets are wide compared to England, and the houses are all bungalows. It’s a landscape with an abundance of space – everything indicates it. Cars are huge; not the small, fuel efficient hatchbacks of Europe but large-engined automatics. And the ‘ute’ is ubiquitous – a pick-up truck. Australia has perfected the two-seater car, with the ute evolving far beyond their original purpose as a farm vehicle. They are lowered and pimped out, with oversized wheels and booming exhausts, thus rendering them completely impractical for anything other than hooning up and down the main drag in a small town. Sit long enough in Bendigo town centre and you’ll see the same ones again and again, cruising the circuit in a V8 snarl. It’s not just boy racers either – we passed a Barbie-pink Holden Commodore with tinted windows, three girls in the front, the redundant flat-bed at the back covered with a sparkly tarpaulin. I had wondered at the impracticality of it: how do you go out with all your mates when your car only seats two or three? Well, everyone has their own ute. Presumably they all go in convoy.
Bendigo, like many of the Goldfields towns, has the feel of a place that boomed and then slowly deflated. The scale of the town seems oversized for its present-day population, and consequently the streets feel empty. A misguided municipal initiative has decided to launch a valiant counter-attack to the cult of the car by pedestrianising a section of the main street, a wide open windswept expanse of brutalism like some Russian industrial city, with calamitous concrete benches and two bizarre objects which look like anti-aircraft positions. These are in fact public toilets, operated by a series of push buttons, and are as squalid and dismal as any such facilities. Considerate of the council to install such conveniences, but the fact that Bendigo’s only pedestrian street is dominated by two vast concrete public toilets lends a certain impression to the place. Away from the town planning initiatives, the rest of the place is quite pleasant – more Wild West architecture, pavements shaded by wide verandahs from the sun, and a number of cafes.
I went in search of a new pair of Blundstones – the elastic-sided Aussie workboots – as my last pair had expired in London after many years’ noble service in a variety of exotic locations. A store on the corner called Aussie Disposals offered a range of workwear, so we headed in. We hadn’t been looking at the rows of assorted Blunnies for more than a moment before an assistant came over and asked if we needed any help. Nice, clean-cut Aussie lad with an easy smile. When I told him I’d left my last pair in London he lit up – he’d spent a couple of years in the UK, working at a private school in the Midlands, and had loved it. Wished he could go back. It struck me how ridiculous the visa regulations are, for two countries that are so culturally similar, with a shared heritage. To impose a two year limit on people visiting because their particular occupation is not on some skills list seems absurd. And the Australian government’s priorities are clear from the list of acceptable occupations – it’s all mining engineers, healthcare workers and IT. In fact on the SBS news the other night, presented by a lady ripe for caricature who seemed to be reading her autocue by syllable with a faint air of surprise, instead of the more conventional ‘meaning of words’ style of delivery, there was a report about the British National Health Service actively recruiting Ambulance staff from Australia – ‘ambos’, as they are inevitably abbreviated to. I saw an ambulance parked up in Kyneton which had some writing on the side, protesting about their poor salary. It turns out that Victoria pays its ambulance crews up to $30,000 (£15,000) a year less than any other state; they are on $75,000 instead of $100,000 or so. So the NHS has set up a recruitment drive to attract them to London, complete with motivational hashtag #noordinarychallenge. The only drawback that I could see to this otherwise laudable initiative was that working for the NHS, Aussie ambulance crews could be expected to earn up to… $75,000, or exactly what they are on in Victoria. I’m not sure it’s been entirely thought through properly.
Similarly when it comes to immigration, there’s a furious debate going on here over what to do with asylum seekers. Australia has been outsourcing its refugee problem since the Howard years, incarcerating people in the tiny Pacific island of Nauru (previously famous for its guano, or seabird manure, which made the inhabitants hugely wealthy until the development of synthetic fertilizers led to a crash in the birdshit sector), and Papua New Guinea – one of the most violent and unequal societies on earth. The latest ‘solution’, on the news last night, was a policy to resettle asylum seekers in Cambodia, of all places. Things have got to be pretty bad when refugees from Australia need to be settled in Cambodia. Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison ventured the opinion that they might be able to set up their own businesses in Cambodia and become productive members of society – presumably supporters of ‘Team Australia’ if not actual players. Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy pointed out that in an impoverished society rated at 160th out of 174 of the most corrupt countries on earth, with 50% unemployment, many of the population living on less than a dollar a day and a barely functional education system, this Australian initiative was “a joke”. Nevertheless I’m sure the government of Cambodia has welcomed the prospect of huge amounts of Australian government money pouring into the country. Perhaps with this financial incentive they’ll manage to plummet to 170th on the corruption list in time.
The irony to all this is that, coming from the crowded UK, the first thing that strikes you about this country is the space. The density of population is one of the lowest on earth. There’s no need to err on the side of caution in planning – there’s room enough for all, and then some. Pavements are wide, roads are massive, and driving along, instead of the curtailed view you so often get in England, hemmed in by hedgerows and trees, here you can see for miles. Houses are mostly single storey. It’s easy to park in almost any of these Victorian towns just by pulling in to the side of the road. Pavement cafes have outdoor seating at some distance from the traffic roaring by. Heading down the main street of a Goldfields town you’ll see a few pedestrians about, but far less than a town of corresponding size in the UK. The whole effect is relaxing: less pressure.
Picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s an imposing set of volcanic spikes jutting out of eucalyptus forests. The air is cool and the forest floor dappled with sunlight. Birdsong filters through the trees – loud, raucous, even. Magpies here warble like harmonicas, a flock of cockatoos passes squawking overhead. The cafe at the base of the rock has a tame kangaroo, which looks half asleep in the sunshine. I reach out and tentatively stroke its head; the fur is amazingly soft, like a rabbit. Many people assume that the story of the group of schoolgirls who disappeared on Hanging Rock in 1900 was true. In fact it was a fictional novel written in 1967 by Joan Lindsey. The 1970s film was all heaving bodices and hysteria: repressed sexuality and a fear of the bush – and more to the point, the people who lived in it. The mystery of their disappearance deepened, with wild speculation, until – spoiler alert – Lindsey wrote a follow-up chapter in the 1980s, which moved into the realms of magical realism: girls turning into lizards and disappearing into cracks in the rock. Far-fetched though this may have been for western audiences, it wasn’t a million miles from Aboriginal traditional stories. In the end the most likely explanation to this entirely fictitious mystery was that there was a rockfall; when you see the size of some of the boulders it’s easy to imagine the mountain rearranging itself, shifting position and landing on a few girls. There wouldn’t be a trace of them left.
We climb up a series of steps, and duck under the famous hanging rock. The spires of rock loom around us, fluted and gnarled by erosion. This is apparently a type of rock which is only found here, and in Norway and Sweden. Emerging onto a summit we take in the sunlit scene which unfurls below us: miles of lush, pastoral farmland interspersed with patches of trees. A road growls off to the left, and we can hear a chorus of frogs from a dam winking in the sunshine. This site was used as an initiation site by the local Wurundjeri people until the mid-19th century. As colonial settlement spread throughout the area the Aboriginal people were dispossessed, but one last initiation ceremony of young males into the tribe took place in 1851. This was notable due to the presence of two white settlers’ children, Willie and Tom Chivers, aged 11 and 6. Their mother had gone missing, and their father had disappeared while off searching for her, so the boys were being cared for by the Wurundjeri. It’s a strange thought – two small white boys on this eerie pinnacle of rock jutting up above miles of pristine bushland, silently watching the last initiation ceremony of the tribe that had become their new family, and who were themselves slowly but surely dying out.