August 15, 2012

Aussie Rules

After 24-hours of flying and 24-hours in Shanghai, we finally made it Down Under. Our plan is to spend the next 4 weeks working our way up the Eastern Coast of Australia. Our first stop was Melbourne, where the people give off an effortlessly cool vibe and can talk intelligently about food, drink, fashion, sport, music and art.

Melbourne feels like a mix between Vancouver and Portland with a dash of artsy Barcelona thrown in. This city is not afraid of a little color.

Melbourne is full of beautifully landscaped parks, museums, sports stadiums, and cozy coffee shops. Everything is very vegetarian / gluten / vegan conscious. We even saw our first ever vegan shoe store, where you can purchase cruelty-free boots.

The downtown is packed with intriguing little arcades and lane-ways that lead to unpublicized restaurants, stores, and cafes. It feels like Melbourne is a place where you discover – and then trial-and-error – your favorite hang-outs over a long period of time. Thanks to Shanghai we only got 36 hours, which is practically embarrassing to admit.

We based ourselves out of the hip little neighborhood of Fitzroy, where we became coffee drinkers for 1.5 days. On the other side of town is St. Kilda, a dead-on replica of Pacific Beach in San Diego. Honestly, if we closed our eyes and got dropped on St. Kilda’s main street, we would have thought it was our old stomping grounds.

This is our friend Bella, who we met in Brazil earlier this year during Carnival.

Bella lives in Melbourne, so as soon as we stepped off the plane, she gave us a tour of her city. After taking us to get an obligatory vegetarian meal with a coffee, our next stop was the stadium…

Aussie Rules is officially known as Australian football, but it also goes by football, Aussie football, or my favorite…“footy”.

We caught an evening game between the Richmond Tigers and the Western Bulldogs, both of whom hail from Melbourne. In fact, 10 of the 18 teams in the AFL (Australian Football League) are from Melbourne.

We watched the game at Melbourne’s famous MCG Stadium. I know what you were thinking. That doesn’t stand for Miller Genuine Draft. It stands for Melbourne Cricket Grounds. Australian Football was invented in Melbourne as a way to keep cricket players fit during the off-season.

To our novice eyes, footy is a mix between American football, soccer, rugby and basketball. The highlights are the high scoring games, precise kicking, and high jumping.

It’s not a very complicated game. We read the rules on the plane ride over. Within 10 minutes of watching it live, we pretty much understood what was going on.

Both the ball and the field are elliptical in shape. There are 18 players from each team, 9 referees, and 2 messengers. You read that right…messengers. Along with the team doctors and waterboys, all of these people can stay on the field even when the ball’s in play. This means that there could technically be 51 people on the field at one time. It’s mass chaos.

Just as entertaining to watch are the loyal fans who abide by strict “members reserve dress regulations” of “neat casual” – their words, not mine. This means they must wear collared shirts and absolutely will not be allowed into the stadium if they have on workout gear, ripped clothes, or beachwear. What is this, church? They’re also not allowed to wear thongs. For all of the Americans reading this, that means flip flops.

The fans wear scarves which make them look like they’re watching Harry Potter in a Quidditch match.

There are no cheerleaders, but the crew from Hogwarts waves the world’s largest pompoms behind the goalposts.

Wait, what is going on? It’s cold here! Wasn’t it just 5 days ago that we were laying like beached whales on a bunch of rocks in Croatia? We were having ocean withdrawal, so we spent 2 days driving and playing along the Great Ocean Road.

We’re not sure how we went our entire lives without knowing that Australians drive on the other side of the road and from the other side of the car. However unlike in Great Britain, the levers for the turn signal and windshield wipers are reversed. Our windshield wipers are on a lot. When it’s sunny.

3 days would have been ideal along the Great Ocean Road, and it would have easily been possible to spend an entire week moseying from site to site. But as the Aussies would say, we’ve got “heaps to see” and so we had to pick sites along the way. Our top highlights were:

Bells Beach, which hosts the longest continuously running surf contest in the world. This is also where surf shops like Rip Curl and Quicksilver got their start.

Loch Ard Gorge along Shipwreck Beach, where the only 2 survivors of an 1878 shipwreck washed ashore on this stunning piece of land.

12 Apostles, a set of limestone stacks that run along the coast. There are new apostles forming all the time; you'll just need to wait a few centuries to see the erosion finish its job.

There are so many more little stops along the way – Melba Gully, The Arch, London Bridge, The Grotto, Bay of Maytyrs – that make this an unforgettable drive. If you’ve ever done the Bur Sur drive in California, this is better.

There are also incredible beaches along the Great Ocean Road. We didn’t get to fully enjoy them because it was too cold, but we’re sure they are fabulous in the summer. On the flip side, we were literally the only people in the whole of Tower Hill Nature Reserve, and we had the entire Gibson Steps beach in front of the 12 Apostles to ourselves. Off-season has its perks, too.

Aside from the natural beauty of this drive, the most special part for us was the wildlife. Within 30 hours of landing in Australia, we had up close encounters with wild kangaroos, koalas, cockatoos, parrots, glowworms, wallabies, emus, and black swans.

We had moments when we could stand in place and see 17 koalas or 9 emus at one time. We watched a baby koala hang backwards out of its mother’s pouch while it chomped on a eucalyptus leaf. We laughed as a baby kangaroo got so scared when it spotted us that it dove into its mother’s pouch with its legs still flailing outside. We had to keep reminding ourselves that we weren’t in a zoo. These were all wild and natural occurrences.

If we had been in Europe, we would have paid 3 toll fees and 10 entrance fees by the time we ended the Great Ocean Road. In Australia, all of these incredible experiences are free! Don’t get me wrong…Australia can be ridiculously expensive when it comes to food and transportation, but the nature is fair game for all to enjoy.

Our first impression is that Australia is very civilized. They run a tight ship here. There’s no ambiguity when it comes to things like parking spaces or menu prices. The rules are clearly marked. Australia also feels like the closest thing to home since we’ve started our trip. The weather is just like San Diego in the wintertime, the restaurants have a point of view, and everyone is speaking English! The Aussies Rule.

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