Tuesday, March 20, 2018

10 March 2018 - Day 7 - Melbourne to Mount Gambier

I was ready by 6.30 am to leave; the night rest was not adequate owing to incessant cough and feverishness. Despite a hot water bath I felt cold and thought that the chest congestion is taking a turn for the worse. Ashok gave me a hot cup of tea to get started. With all the bags in and google navigator in its usual position I was all set. Then came a flask of hot water, which Ranjana had got ready for me. What can you say of such acts of compassion and support? Such people make one’s life meaningful.

The early part of the day’s drive was all about glitches. The first was when I took the wrong turn as I departed from the house and had to take a long detour to get back to the main road. The caddie on which I had kept the mobile phone with google navigation came loose at a bend in the road and went missing inside the car. I had to stop the car and make a virtual hunt for it before retrieving the mobile. That was the second glitch. The third could have been fatal. Not far from Williams Landing I had to take a right turn for which I saw the green light ahead. I signaled and turned, not noticing the car that was hurtling from the opposite direction. The gap was too close to call. On another day, I could have been a body bag. But this day, abundantly blessed by Our Lady, to who I was praying at the time, I continued on my journey thanking Her for an extended life.
The first part of my drive this day would be the 245 km Great Ocean Drive that begins from the world famous surf town of Torquay and ends near Warrnambool. The Great Ocean Road is also known as the largest war memorial since the road was largely built by war returnees of the two world wars. The entire stretch of this magnificent drive is a two way road with speed restrictions ranging from 50 to 100 kph. I was in doubt that I would make the longer detour from A1 to enjoy the magical drive. And what a day it panned out to be. I was tempted to stop every 100 meters, such was the beauty of the place. My first stop was at the postcard perfect town of Anglesea and its pristine beach. If one were to go by the lookout points it will need a few days to cover the entire drive one way. With a heavy heart I skipped many because I had to get to Mount Gambier by the end of the day. I did not take the spots less travelled for want of time. I just marveled in the drive on the road hugging the cliffs, where frequent warnings are placed to beware of rock falls.

The Gibsons Steps is a steep set of steps by the side of a cliff down to the beach in the Port Campbell National Park, very close to the 12 Apostles. The latter is arguably the most visited site on the Ocean Drive. They are limestone stacks that have formed over the years due to wave action and erosion. It is said that there were never 12 stacks, but somehow they were known by that number. One of the stacks collapsed in 2010 and now there are only 8 visible stacks. Erosion goes on unabated and fresh bridges, hollows and stacks will form over the years. But, without a doubt the Pacific Ocean on this stretch is one never to be missed. The London Arch was formerly part of the London Bridge. The centre portion of the erstwhile bridge collapsed leaving the present arch. I heard that a couple of tourists were stranded when the collapse happened and they had to be rescued by a police helicopter. The Bay of Islands is a large area of panoramic geographical delights; cliffs and limestone stacks with pristine, sandy beaches. The Cape Otway Lighthouse was first lit in 1848 and is the oldest surviving lighthouse in Australia. It is documented that 8 ships were wrecked along the Cape Otway coastline.

It had become incredibly hot by mid-afternoon. Nevertheless, the delightful sights that made one marvel more and more at nature’s magic and palette made me labour on and on from one stoppage to another. A highlight of all the attractions is the generous parking space, drinking water facility, toilets and rest area. Despite being crowded due to the long labour weekend the facilities were not strained. Once I had reached the end of the Great Ocean Drive I had to be careful in observing the speed limits. I had been warned that checking would be intense f the long weekend. Mercifully, I reached Mount Gambier without any hitches.

The Federal Hotel in housed in a 150 year old building owned by the Dan Murphys group - the liquor store chain. The bar was busy and Gavin Robertson, the young man who eventually attended to me at the hotel reception, was engaged in attending to a few customers there. while checking in he asked me if I would like to have a cereal or muesli breakfast. I was quite taken in by that enquiry, for I expected breakfast to be served the next morning when I would exercise my choice. Though a bit puzzled I settled for the muesli option whereupon Gavin handed over a box that contained an assortment of breakfast items. I was also instructed to leave the key in the room and look it in case I wished to depart earlier than the opening time of the reception. Gavin, on being asked, told me that I could visit the Blue Lake and the Umpherston sinkhole, if I wished to stick to the two best attractions the city had to offer.

I had booked an economy twin room with shared toilets and bath. The facilities were excellent. After keeping the luggage in the room I decided to visit the attractions before it got late. As it turned out the Blue Lake was hardly 5 minutes’ drive from the Hotel. The Lake is one of the four crater lakes located in a dormant volcano in the Mount Gambier area. Two of them have dried up over the past few decades due to the drop of water table. Blue Lake changes colour depending n the season. Between November and March the Lake becomes cobalt blue in colour giving the lake its name; it becomes deathly grey thereafter. The Umpherston sinkhole is a limestone cave formed by the corrosion of limestone by water. The cave was created when the roof of the chamber collapsed after many years of erosion. This natural formation was converted into a garden in 1886 and continues to bewitch visitors to this day.

By the time I got back to the hotel room I was feeling extremely feverish and the blisters on my feet were acting up. I wanted to have a light meal and go to bed early. I went down to the restaurant, where Gavin took my order for a small portion of beef Schnitzel. He happily announced a 25% discount for house guests and suggested that he would get me the meal in the room very soon. When he brought the order I couldn’t believe my eyes. The portion was so huge that I was sure I would waste most of it – something that I hate to do. The huge slice of beef with fried batter and mushroom sauce on it and a humongous portion of fries would have been par for the course if my health had been alright. But, this day I barely had a couple of mouthfuls of the meat and a quarter portion of fries before calling it quits. I felt miserable about it; but such was the condition of my body. I swallowed a couple of Panadols, drank some cough syrup and turned in for the night hoping that the next day would be different, health-wise.

Monday, March 19, 2018

9 March 2018 - Day 6 - In Melbourne

Ashok Nair and I worked together in South Western Railway (SWR); the newly formed railway administrative zone had officers pooled from various other railway zones. Most of them were unwilling horses, forced to work in the new dispensation with certain incentives like retention of quarters in the previous work station, etc. Ashok had been in Western Railway and I was fresh from deputation to Container Corporation of India in Chennai. Working conditions, because of creature comforts and shortage of staff, were challenging. But, under the able stewardship of some of the finest leaders, the railway did exceptionally well. Most offices functioned from makeshift accommodation. I did not even have a chair to offer customers when they visited. On one of the station inspections I commandeered a vintage wooden bench that used to be provided in days gone by in railway stations for passengers' comfort. I got the bench buffed and polished, which became the pride of the office. During those tough days Ashok and I used to interact a fair bit professionally. The Railway Club was active and that provided another opportunity to get to know each other well. I remember with a lot of gratitude how he helped me with the final settlement when I took voluntary retirement from the railways. He spoke to other railways, took personal interest in the case, and sorted out the clearances that were required to ‘release’ me from the system. Ashok had come to SWR with the reputation of being a doer; he enhanced that reputation while in SWR. The general impression of a finance officer is that they are wet blankets, but Ashok was a refreshing change. We have been in touch, off and on, on Facebook. When I had posted about my trip to Australia and Melbourne he had offered hospitality, which as I mentioned earlier, I took and even sought more.
Over morning tea, Fazalul and Ranjana explained the Medicare system that operated in Australia. They mentioned that lives of people are protected to the maximum extent it can be. Irrespective of whether one is covered by Medicare or any other insurance scheme, attending to the patient and getting them back on their feet was the topmost objective of any clinic or hospital, mandated by the government. There have been numerous cases of tourists requiring medical assistance in Australia. Apparently the cost for a days’ admission for intensive care could be as high as AUD 3000! The insurance that we come to Australia with – normally, one million USD – could run out in a few days.

Fazalul narrated an interesting story of his Mayor. This person had been Secretary to the erstwhile Australian PM, Julia Gillard. One day he decided to lead a different life and left that high position he had been holding in the government and joined a road repair and construction company. And what did he work as? Not as an executive, but as an ordinary worker standing at work sites holding the ‘Slow’ sign board regulating traffic in either direction. Tells us two things – dignity of labour is the highest here and there are no trappings in office. Fazalul mentioned about the current PM, Malcolm Turnbull, being seen commuting to work in trains. In the days I have been in Australia I haven’t seen a VIP car yet. The flashing lights are used by policemen at work and ambulances. Air ambulances are used effectively to evacuate affected people to reduce the impact of trauma. Williams Landing was an Airforce base in the recent past, which is been converted to a residential cum commercial centre, with new facilities for sports and recreation being created by the Council.
After rest and recuperation I was ready to venture into the City – the State Library was highly recommended. Another home cooked meal of dal and fish fry put more strength into my wings, as it were. We were to take a train from Williams landing to Melbourne Central, for which we had to use a MYKI, which is a reloadable smart ticket which is used in public transport in Melbourne, and I understand in other public transport systems in Victoria State of Australia. Fazalul gave me a spare card for my use on the train ride to the city centre. Ranjana dropped us at the railway station and the two senior citizens were on their own for a few hours. The train we got took us to Flinders Street Station, from where we took a tram to Melbourne Central. The State Library was a short walk from the tram stop. A very interesting feature of the tram service in Melbourne is that it is a free service for all passengers within designated city limits. This was done with a view to reduce congestion within the CBD. A perceptive administration is all about knowing and doing what helps the citizen through their daily lives.
The State Library is a marvel. The forecourt of the library seemed to be a popular meeting place for students and tourists. At the entrance is the imposing statue of Justice Sir Barry, one of the founding fathers of this stupendous facility, built during the mid-1850s. The RMIT is in the nearby vicinity and so is the Universities of Melbourne and Victoria. The library now holds more than two million books, over 16,000 serials and many famed manuscripts, including that of James Cook, the explorer. The highlight of the library is the Dome, which is the highest in any library in the world. The octagonal reading room can hold more than 600 readers and interestingly has a portion devoted to chess aficionados. The atmosphere is very informal, with drinks and food permitted within the library. Ashok and I were apprehensive when we got inside the grand building, not knowing what the entry regulations would be. At the assistance booth we were waved in with a warm smile and “You are welcome to use it, Sirs”! The six floors of the massive complex are used by those in search of information and knowledge and those who come to gaze in wonder at what can be.
Karthik Prasanna is the son of another former railway colleague, Poovendran, with who I used to work when I was in Mysore railway division on my first posting as a greenhorn within the system. Poovendran messaged me saying that his son is in Melbourne and that I should meet him. Karthik worked for ANZ Bank in Bangalore on technical support and was in Melbourne on an eight week attachment. The personable young man met up with us at the State Library. George Samuel worked in an office close by and he joined us for a cup of coffee in the nearby Starbucks.
While at coffee George suggested that we visit the Parliament building and the Docklands. Karthik had to get back to work and Janki joined us. The Parliament House is an imposing structure that is more than 160 years old. Conducted tours are also done of the Parliament building, but we were late for that. In the near vicinity of the administrative complex is the Princess Theatre, which is considered the oldest continuous entertainment complex in Australia. From there we took another tram to the Docklands. The former swampy dock is today one of the prime real estate properties in Melbourne. Swanky commercial and apartment complexes are with a stone’s throw away from the rather ungainly Melbourne Wheel and the Etihad Stadium. The Marina waterfront has many large cafes and restaurants, which were noisy and filled to capacity as it was start of a long weekend and Etihad Stadium was hosting a match too. Ashok and I suggested a beer before we headed back to Williams Landing – Ruchit had joined us and George had headed back to his office. I had wanted to take a tour of the Yarra River, but the cruises had been suspended due to the Moomba festival, which is centered around the Yarra River. This is the largest free community festival that is organized annually by the City of Melbourne and spans four days upto the Labour Day on March 12th. Activities include the parade, fireworks, watersports, music marked by gaiety and carnival atmosphere.
Fazalul, Ranjana and Rehan came to pick us up from the railway station and I was shown around the Williams Landing development. A small community, but rich in facilities. Later, Irshad, brother-in-law of Fazalul came over. Irshad works for Ford and he had relocated to Melbourne from London, were he had been with JLR. Discussions went on well into the night, not even broken by the excellent dinner of chicken biriyani, parotta and mutton curry. Ashok gave me preparation of honey and turmeric for my sore throat and packed some for use in the next few days. Fazalul gave me some tablets for fever and allergy and Ranjana gave me a bottle of honey. Before parting for the night the whole family presented me with a sleeping bag. I was so touched by these gestures, which showed how much they had adopted me a family. I believe that we have a family all over the world, only we must travel and meet the other members.

8 March 2018 - Day 5 - Hobart to Burnie/Devonport/Launceston and Melbourne

The bed was comfortable and I emerged well rested by 6 am. The other roomies must have crept into their beds sometime early morning. I was loathe to disturb them, but I had to do my own things. I tiptoed around the room as much as I could without putting on the lights. I was ready before 7 am and the common lounge wasn’t open yet. At the reception I returned the pillow cover and dropped the key in the drop box. When the common lounge was opened I went there to charge the devices and complete some pending documentation. In the kitchen I made a cup of strong coffee before settling down to write a blog account.

The departure was set for after 9 am as the distance to cover was not much and I had a late evening flight for Melbourne from Launceston. I decided to explore the A5 route after Granton, taking the Highland Lakes Road. The drive right up to Deloraine, where it rejoined the A1 to Burnie and Devonport, was a most enjoyable drive. Through verdant hills, farming lands, quaint hamlets and the Great Lakes, I was glad that I had taken this route. I stopped at a town called Bothwell and fueled up, which in hindsight turned out to be an excellent decision. I did not find any fuel station on the rest of A5. Bothwell has a population fo less than 400! It is better known for hunting and is situated on the River Clyde. At the Bothwell Garage the smell of yummy sandwiches tempted me into buying a double bacon, egg in BBQ sauce sandwich. It was terrific and delayed me in Bothwell as well as on the way because all attempts to keep a portion for lunch fell on the deaf senses of the brain that controls such instincts. The rest of the drive was through the Central Plateau Conservation area, which is the highest lands in Tasmania. To the west of it is the Cradle Mountain. The other feature of the drive on A5 was the Great Lake area. The lookout point gives amazing views of the lakes. The lake does get frozen in parts during the winter. The Miena Dam is another place of tourist interest attached to the Great Lake.
From Deloraine it was barely 100 km to Burnie, the start of A1 in Tasmania. From there I drove via Devonport to take a look at the Spirit of Tasmania in Devonport port. I had missed the opportunity to sail on her this time. Maybe, soon, sometime. From Devonport I took B11 instead of A1 to drive through the woods. It was a superlative experience. I reached the car rental in Launceston at 1530 hours. The car return was as hassleless as had been collecting her. The inspection of the car was quickly made – I had topped up fuel before taking the car to the rental yard. John agreed to attest my documentation and soon dropped me at the airport. I had a few hours before the flight was announced. As I had already taken the boarding pass the previous day, I had to just wait it out.
As I was driving from Hobart this morning Deeju Shivdas of SBS, the second largest broadcasting company in Australia got in touch with me. He had seen the report that had appeared in the Indian Sun a couple of days back. Deeju mentioned that he used to work for Asianet till 2012 and moved to Australia after that. He requested for a phone in interview for Malayalam as well as English audience. They have slots for over 68 languages. The Malayalam segment was scheduled to go on air at 7 pm this day. As I waited at the Launceston airport I completed both the interviews, before I took the flight, which was on time.
I had a problem with parking my car at the Urban Central accommodation if I stayed there this night. They agreed to keep the car only till 9.30 am. I had been invited by Ashok Nair, a former railway colleague, to stay over tomorrow evening with his daughter, Ranjana, and her family in a suburb of Melbourne. The advantage of that location was that the connection to The Great Ocean Drive was not very far away and would save me time on the 10th. When the problem of parking the car hit me this morning I was toying with alternatives. In the end I chose to speak to Ashok to enquire if I could get in there a night early. It was a most unusual request, but forced by circumstances that only pointed to this solution. He readily agreed and said that he would wait up for me for dinner. I insisted that I would arrive after dinner at 9 pm. so, it was to Ashok’s daughter’s house that I set the Google Maps to, in Williams Landing, upon retrieving the car from the Pacific Airport Parking.

It took me just under a half hour to reach the address of the excellent couple Ranjana and Fazalul Rahman and their precocious son, Reyhaan. The doctor couple had initially moved to Australia to do their Master’s program in Medicine; they are practicing physiotherapists. Fazalul runs his own clinic just a few minutes’ drive from the house, while Ranjana works in an aged care centre. They made me totally at ease in their lovely home, without even feeling that I am meeting them for the first time. Reyhaan is completely ‘wedded’ to cars – he has tens of them in all shapes, sizes and makes. Ranjana served up a tasty fare of fish fry and fish curry. Here was home cooked food after so long.

With the visit to Tasmania I had completed three states of Australia and their capital cities, namely New South Wales (Sydney), Victoria (Melbourne) and Tasmania (Hobart). Within the federal structure, each state is fiercely competitive and enforces rules and regulations in the manner in which it deems most appropriate for its citizens.

7 March 2018 - Day 4 - Melbourne-Launceston-Hobart

Since geographical restrictions forced a change in the itinerary – car rental companies do not permit vehicles to be taken across by the Tasman ferry – I had to book a flight to Launceston from Melbourne. Jet Star offers affordable flights all over Australia and I booked one with only carryon baggage of 7 kgs. Rentalcars website got me a reasonable offer from East Coast rentals of a Toyota Corolla for AUD 100 for two days. George had told me last evening that T4 terminal at Melbourne airport is a large facility and that I must factor in extra time for check-in and security. But, first I had to find a place to park the car cheaply and safely. On the net I located the Pacific Parking, which offered covered parking at AUD 30 for two days. I booked a space online. To facilitate the car parking and longer time for check-in at the airport I left the hostel by 4.30 am, even though my flight was only at 7 am. Traffic was light on the road but in a couple of places, I am afraid, I may have violated traffic regulations because of checking Google maps and concentrating on keeping to speed restrictions. Despite all this, I reached the Pacific Parking complex slightly ahead of their opening time of 5 am. After taking out the baggage I needed for the Tasmanian trip I handed over my keys to the counter clerk, paid the fee and I was taken to the airport in a van. All this happened in less than 5 minutes. It was beyond belief for me. It was so easy to do business in this country.
The van dropped me at Terminal 2. The walk to T4 – an exclusive terminal for Jet Star - was quite long and George was right. I used a self-printing kiosk to check-in and get the boarding passes for both the flights. The security check was non-intrusive, but they wanted my bag opened to check for explosive devices! I recognised that they do such checks randomly. The terminal was crowded as flights to various parts of Australia were scheduled in the morning hours. Gates would be announced just 45 minutes before the scheduled flight time. I had some time to kill and hence, decided to try the Oporto breakfast. Oporto is the Australian McDonalds, the story of a Portuguese immigrant building a brand on the flame grilled chicken burger and a self-developed chilli sauce. The breakfast of eggs, buns, bacon and fires was indeed very filling.
The flight was on time and by 8 am I touched down in Launceston, which has scenic mountains as its backdrop. I called the toll free number and was transferred to the East Coast rental desk in Launceston. In a half hour John, from the rental company, came in his van to pick me up. The office was just about a km from the airport. John is an example of the multi-tasking executive. He was the manager of the store, the insurance agent and the driver. He explained the various insurance alternatives. I plumbed for one that restricted my excess to AUD 358 in the event of an accident or theft. The paperwork was done swiftly. He told me that the car I had booked – Toyota Corolla – was unavailable and hence, he was upgrading me to the next level, a Toyota Camry. I was not disappointed, to say the least! He took me to check the car and noted down the dents and other apparent defects on the car. he handed over the key of the car to me after I signed on the inspection sheet and he was on his way to pick up his next customer from the airport. He had not closed the office; there was no one else in the office either.
Since I had been embarrassed at not knowing how to open the fuel tank of the Outlander I specifically asked John how to do that in the Camry. Once I sat in the car and put it in forward gear the car refused to move an inch. That’s when I realized that the car had handbrakes on. But, I could not see any handbrake in the car which I could release. After inspecting the car – there was no manual inside the car – I almost gave up and decided to await John's return. Then, suddenly I recalled his mentioning releasing something with the foot. Yes, voila, the handbrake had to be released with the foot. I did that and I was out on the road to Hobart.
I took the A1 from Launceston to Hobart, which was about 185 km. A1 in Tasmania stretches from Burnie and Devonport to Hobart. I decided to cover the Burnie-Devonport-Launceston bit tomorrow while returning from Hobart. The beautiful road that meanders through Tasman highlands can be covered in less than 150 mts. I could barely stop in a couple of places to take in the beauty of the naturally manicured countryside spiked with water bodies that gave off a unique cobalt blue colour. It was interesting to note small hamlets along the way named Bagdad and Mangalore! When I reached The Waratah Hotel, in the centre of the picture postcard perfect city, the accommodation was confirmed and so was the car park. However, I was told, the room would be ready only by 3 pm. A walk to Salamanca Market was suggested by the young man attending to me. Instead, I decided to drive to Port Arthur, which was recommended by Rajan at the St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne.

The Tasman Bridge is an awesome sight as one leaves Hobart CBD for Port Arthur.  The five lane bridge is part of the Tasman highway and spans 1.4 km in length. I felt extremely sleepy all along the drive to Port Arthur. After paying the AUD 39 entrance fee I was told that I would be taking the boat tour at 2.20 pm and walking tour at 3.30 pm., which would last nearly an hour. That would be late for me. So I decided to skip the walking tour and return after the boat ride. Before that I had the famous Fish & Chips of Tasmania. The portion of chips was so large that I barely managed to finish the three large pieces of fish.

At the ticket counter one is given a playing card. The card identifies you as one of the prisoners of the erstwhile convict settlement. I had drawn 5 of Diamonds and in the Museum that card belonged to James Jones, who had been convicted of thieving a loaf of bread! A tour of the museum showcased the use of convict settlements by erstwhile colonial powers and the use of convict labor for building infrastructure. The Port Arthur settlement was active for over two centuries and even now 11 well preserved sites are testimony to its development into a township over the years. I missed the scheduled boat ride as I got a bit engrossed in the museum. However, I took the 3 pm ride with a witty commentator at it non-stop. Port Arthur, sadly, was also the scene of a ghastly crime – a lone shooter took the lives of 35 people and injured many more in 1996. While the perpetrator had been jailed for many lives – capital punishment is not one of the options in this country – the shooting sparked a nationwide debate on gun control. As an aftermath of the debate a ban was imposed on carrying guns. And, to this day, the country has not witnessed any such incident, big or small. That’s an example of great governance. Personal liberties are alright to the extent that they do not harm or can cause harm to another human. What we see in the USA is crass, an example of how big money rules over humanism.

On the way back from Port Arthur I stopped halfway through and napped. The next stop was near the Tasman Bridge. To take a few pictures of the magnificent structure that was refurbished after an accident I took liberties with parking regulations. I do not know if a traffic violation ticket will follow! In Hobart, after parking the car and securing luggage in the appointed room I went for a walk to the Salamanca market and the piers of Hobart. The city seemed to have gone to sleep. Most shops close by 5 pm. however, all action was at the pier-side. There are numerous cafes, pubs and eating joints all along. One of the large rooms in the Elizabeth pier was playing host to a massive celebration of some kind with young girls of all shapes and sizes dolled up to impress and have fun.  Asian food seemed very popular with a couple of restaurants serving that fare almost full. I walked into a pub cum restaurant called Fish Frenzy. James Boags Draught is a local Tasman beer; good stuff. I got through it doing a portion of the blog. I did not have stomach for a meal after the fish and chips in Port Arthur. I spied an icebox full of local ice-cream. I asked one of the girls for the local favourite and she asked me to try the boysenberry cone. The boysenberry is a cross of four berries, two from Europe (raspberry and blackberry). The berry derives its name from Rudolph Boysen, who is credited with development of the plant. One of the ladies seated at the next table, possibly noticing the relish with which I was consuming the ice-cream, asked me if she should order one. I told her that she would not be disappointed!

The streets were deserted and the air was a bit nippy. The leisurely walk was invigorating too. The hostel room had en suite facilities. The rest of the room members were not in sight when I climbed to the top bunk of one of the two sets in the room and instantly slept.

10 March 2018 - Day 7 - Melbourne to Mount Gambier

I was ready by 6.30 am to leave; the night rest was not adequate owing to incessant cough and feverishness. Despite a hot water bath I ...