Victorian Winter

I first arrived in Melbourne slowly and backwards. The V-Line train that runs from Bendigo has a great number of rear-facing seats – statistically safer in the event of a crash – so after miles of pastoral views, with isolated farm houses nestling in folds in an undulating green landscape, the suburbs appeared progressively behind me; the first two-storey houses, shopping centres, arterial road networks and industrial estates slowly assembled themselves as we trundled into Southern Cross station. The city looked a bit like New York to one who has never been there – yellow cabs and skyscrapers – with a dash of San Francisco. Speaking of the cabs, the recent introduction of a tougher test for taxi drivers was so stringent that only one candidate managed to pass out of several thousand. This was hailed as a resounding success by the committee which came up with the idea, who claimed it was evidence of their high standards – impossible, one might even say. The sun is bright and, at this time of year, the wind is cold. Whereas central London is all steely blue and grey, Melbourne’s colours seem predominantly brown and yellow.

Transport in the city revolves around the Myki card, pronounced ‘My key’, not ‘Mickey’ – much like the Oyster card familiar to Londoners. It works on V-Line trains, metro lines and also the city’s trams. I was instructed in its use by the stationmaster, who set out a number of potential pitfalls that might snare the unwary tourist, chiefly revolving around failing to clock out after the journey.

“Say for example you go out with a couple of mates for a beer in Gisborne,” he announced. I nodded knowingly, although the likelihood was slim. “Well you’ve got to make sure that you clock out again at Kyneton, otherwise you’ll be charged for the whole way to Bendigo.” He had an air of grim satisfaction at the prospect.
“Just as well the train doesn’t run all the way to Darwin then,” I laughed, Darwin being nearly 4000 km to the north.
He looked at me as if I were mad. “Darwin?” he said incredulously. “Darwin’s on a completely different track network!”
I looked suitably abashed, hoping he wouldn’t list all the trains that I’d need to take in order to get there. Fortunately he didn’t. 

It takes a little over an hour from Kyneton to Southern Cross, and the trains run more or less every hour and cost around $11 on the Myki. The service has so far been very good, bar one unfortunate episode last week when we pulled into Sunbury and the driver announced that due to an incident ahead police had taken control of the line. We were advised to remain on the train, and then informed that we should all get off. Nobody had any idea what was happening, but as we milled around looking nonplussed, an elderly lady sidled up to me and said: ‘It’s an armed hold up. Man with a knife. It’s all over Twitter.’ She showed me her phone, which indeed confirmed this. As the knifeman appeared to be in it for the long haul a fleet of buses was mustered as a replacement service. Given that I’d only decided at the last minute to head to Melbourne anyway, and that it was now three o’clock in the afternoon, I didn’t much fancy spending the next 2 hours on a bus. ‘I might just take a look round Sunbury,’ I told the lady. ‘I probably wouldn’t have come here otherwise.’
She looked at me sympathetically. ‘Well that won’t take long.’

A few minutes later, having walked up and down the main drag and arrived back at the station, I saw her point. Sunbury was basically suburban overspill for Melbourne. There was an unusual shortage of cafes by Australian standards. The focal point of the town seemed to be a large shopping mall consisting entirely of budget stores, and a disconsolate-looking food court. I ordered a falafel wrap from Happy Kebab – which wasn’t bad as these things go – and decided I might as well head back to Kyneton.

Back in Kyneton the weather had taken a turn for the worse. A chill southerly breeze and dwindling sunshine meant the temperature struggled to reach double figures. I’ve been surprised how cold it actually is here; September should be spring time, but this year it is late, and there are still occasional frosts at night. Along ‘historic’ Piper Street long vertical flags flapped from poles along the storefronts like Tibetan prayer flags, reminding me of Ladakh. The daffodils were just beginning to come into bloom, though it had been a near thing – the town’s annual daffodil festival began on the 4th of September, and there were fears that there wouldn’t actually be any daffodils due to the late spring. The festival runs for a couple of weeks, and features a parade, as well as a range of activities: photography exhibitions, knitwear sales, best scarecrow competitions, something called a ‘Men’s Breakfast’, and the thing that really got my attention, ferret racing. I’ve never seen ferrets raced before, so am unsure if it’s round a track for the 100 metre scamper or perhaps some kind of steeplechase. Either way, I shall make a point of attending.

Daffodil festivals aside, Kyneton is a quiet little town with a nice botanical gardens. The Rough Guide devotes three lines to it, two of them to a completely different festival which doesn’t actually take place in the town anyway – Budburst in November, celebrating the grape harvest – and states that the town ‘lacks Woodend’s charm’. This seems harsh. I’ve only spent a few hours in Woodend, and although it was very nice, it was much like a dozen or more sleepy little Australian towns; wide pavements shaded by corrugated iron verandahs, a handful of cafes, a clock tower and flower bed, an ‘Avenue of Honour’ line of trees commemorating veterans of both World Wars, and the inevitable snarl of V8 utes up and down the main drag. Away from the main street are rows of bungalows drowsing in the sunshine and not a soul about. If you do encounter anyone they are likely to have a provincial curiosity about a stranger in town. In London strangers’ eyes slide briefly over one another, and never make that contact which might pre-empt a conversation. In small town Australia the stares are longer, more unabashed, curiosity winning out over mere politesse. Everyone knows everyone else in these little places, and while Bendigo or Castlemaine might be a tourist attraction for a day or two, Kyneton is somewhere that few would venture to.

Nearby Daylesford, however, was once labelled ‘the world’s funkiest town’ by the British Airways in-flight magazine – why, one can’t imagine. It’s nice enough, and has a pleasantly alternative vibe, with organic cafes lining the main street, but it’s the surrounding area that draws a different crowd. Daylesford lies in the hill country, and you pass small homesteads and caravans which have a vaguely bohemian look to them. Castlemaine too has a strong ‘alternative’ vibe, with a Saturday market full of characters in tie-dye T-Shirts, battered bush hats and the occasional ethnic scarf, manning stalls selling organic honey and assorted seeds. Kyneton is more workaday, more square, more ocker – a term meaning genuine Aussie. The main employer in the town is the local abbatoir. It has aspirations toward historical respectability, with antique shops and assorted bric a brac in abundance, but it’s the town the farmers head to for shopping, not the arty-farty Melbournites, and it can’t ever quite shake off that blue collar heritage. It has a small town gossip to it, a circular way of skirting round the issue without wishing to seem up front, or worst of all committing the cardinal sin of being seen as a ‘sticky beak’, or nosey parker.

Kyneton, then, contains all the essential ingredients for that concept so indispensable to the magazines – an authentic travel experience. It’s a parallel world with few concessions to tourism, so remains resolutely unchanged by it. You travel ten thousand miles, pop up on the opposite side of the world where night is day and summer is winter, and you find yourself in a place where life goes on regardless. Nevertheless the town has, after a fashion, sought the benefits of the tourist dollar, not least in the form of the daffodil festival. It’s a curious blend of village fete and mardi gras – there’s a parade in the closing days with stilt walkers, cheerleaders, a convoy of fire engines from all over the state and assorted other attractions. This morning’s main event was the ferret racing, which was curiously understated – a small crowd of perhaps 40 or 50 people assembled around a maze of white plastic tubing into which the ferrets were placed. A couple nearby armed with a guitar and mic provided the kind of dreary dirge-like music one usually associates with hymns. Much hilarity as one ferret appeared to have put on a little too much weight in training and got stuck. The ferrets’ owners, who were graded by age, fussed over their animals in the manner of thoroughbred owners. A man attired in yellow with a microphone provided an unintelligible commentary in a burble of laconic dialect where every word merged into the next: “RightsoherecomesCharliewithhisferretLightningtellmeCharliehowdyareckonLightning’sgonnadotoday?”. A smartly attired woman with a TV camera provided footage for the local news, presumably. Two children approached, nervously stroking their charges, the ferrets were inserted into the maze, lids were put on, and they did what ferrets do – scurrying along the tubes and emerging confused into the sunlight to a round of applause. Then it was the next age group – teenage girls, from what I could tell. They cradled the animals, one large girl with dyed hair, a piercing and a hole in her leggings kissing her ferret on its head before popping it into the tube. Ferrets being generally contrary animals, they didn’t exactly play by the rules – two popped their heads out of the tubes simultaneously, watching each other beadily. Another was disqualified for only half emerging from the tube and then sniffing the grass, paying little regard to the furious exhortations of the commentator. As the patter of applause died down and the crowd began to move away, I was approached by a man in an orange hi-viz vest and an ipad. Could he ask me a few questions for a survey of the festival? Certainly, I said.
“How far have you travelled to come to Kyneton?”
“About ten thousand miles. What is that – 16,000km?”
His eyebrows rose. He swiped through a few options on his ipad and ticked ‘500km+’.
“How would you rate today’s entertainment? 5 for very good, 4 for good, 3 for average and then 2 for not very good. 1 for poor.”
“Oh I think that was definitely a four star ferret race as these things go. I mean for five it would really have to be outstanding.”
“How about onward travel? Where are you going next?”
“Along the Great Ocean Road.”
He lit up. “I’m from Geelong! Ah, you’ll love Geelong. So much to see there.”
This was contrary to what I had heard, and I regretted that we were only passing through. But we might stop for lunch.
“Aw yeah, you should do that. One last question. Will you be attending the festival again next year?”
“Well I don’t want to skew your results, but realistically, probably not. It’s rather a long way to come.”
“Good on ya,” he said. “Have a great time in Straylia, mate.” 

Yep. I am.