Aeroplanes and animals

I grew up with Doctor Who and today it’s the one television program everyone in the house sits down together to watch. Since its revival in 2005 the world’s longest running science fiction television series has employed the services of Murray Gold to compose its fantastic soundtrack. When I discovered that the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO) would be performing a concert of Doctor Who music in their home city I was ready to book straight away.
My last trip down to Melbourne, back in March 2011, was a day trip to hear the MSO perform John Williams music. Unlike that trip, this time both B and Alex were coming too, so we decided to make it into a mini holiday. I love my birth city of Melbourne and feel like I don’t visit it often or for long enough.
Alex couldn’t wait. He was pestering us to go to the airport and catch a flight for weeks. We worked out that, with an early-bird deal, that the short term parking at Sydney’s Domestic Airport was not too much higher in price than that of a ride on public transport and much more convenient. The rain made it even more so.
As we drove in I noticed the Thai Airways 747-400 painted with a retro livery. I didn’t know that they had swapped their A340-600 service for the 747s, but it recalled the inflatable aircraft given to Alex aboard the former aircraft the year before.

We could easily have carried everything in onboard luggage, but due to Alex’s obsession with baggage carousels we checked in one item. Anyway, it was an opportunity to try out my Qantas Q-Tag at their automated bag drops. It’s not quite drop the bag on the belt and run, as you need to scan your frequent flyer card or boarding pass, potentially put the luggage in a tray and wait for it to be weighed and laser scanned, while answering questions on the touchscreen. Simpler was checking in using my mobile phone – far more convenient than printing out boarding passes.
Qantas’ Terminal 3 is quite bright and modern. The food options are a bit more limited than Terminal 2. We shared a small (except in fat levels) breakfast from Hungry Jacks, then walked down to Gate 1 from where our flight would depart.
Alex received a toy airport for Christmas and we had fun watching the various services and vehicles involved in preparing the aircraft for flight.

As we boarded we grabbed newspapers from the rack (all major Sydney publications provided) and headphones from the basket. Today’s flight was on a Qantas 737-800, which was good because we were all able to sit together, me by the window, B at the aisle and Alex in the middle. Once onboard Alex was handed a “Flying Fun Pack” with plenty of activities including red-blue 3-D glasses.

We lifted off the main runway under grey and wet skies. It was a real relief to rise above the clouds and see some blue sky, the first in a while. The crew came through and handed out a snack of Byron Bay date and ginger biscuits and drinks. We all had juice and Alex was more interested in the optional juicy red apples than the other snacks. He soon fell asleep.

The clouds stayed with us until near the Victorian border, when Lake Hume and Albury became visible and Alex awoke. Ah, memories of university days when B lived there for a year.

The border crossing also signifies the start of the descent into Melbourne. The countryside of the south seems to be of a different shade to that of the northern states, the yellow fields more yellow, the green bushland with more khaki than their greener northern cousins. It is a real feeling of homecoming to me as we drift down towards Tullamarine Airport.

Tullamarine seemed to have an interesting and a little different collection of airlines and aircraft to Sydney. I recalled Alex, who was suffering gastro, and I flying back from Singapore on a Qantas A380 as we passed that aircraft. The terminal seemed as closed in and outdated as the pre-refurbished Sydney. It also lacks a train service and instead we had to catch the too expensive Skybus into the city. I noticed the range of hotels right on the airport doorstep. Sydney’s are much less convenient.

Despite it still being morning the staff at the Hotel Ibis Melbourne were happy to give us a room. We had stayed there a few times before. It’s clean and convenient to Melbourne Central and the Queen Victoria Markets. After dumping our stuff we went straight out to look for lunch, having dumplings and noodles from a shop opposite the markets. Then we walked under Melbourne Central to purchase Myki smartcards for travel on the Melbourne public transport network. The need to swipe when getting on and off can be rather inconvenient, especially on trams and it’s very easy not to do it. Still, I wish that Sydney had smartcards.
One of our favourite activities as a child in Melbourne was to visit the zoo. I hadn’t been back since leaving Melbourne at age 9. It’s about $20 cheaper than Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, so I thought it would be fun both to revisit childhood and take Alex to a zoo again. We caught the tram there, the journey recalling childhood drives to the city from Brunswick.

I was really impressed by the zoo. Alex seemed to enjoy it too, but it’s interesting to see a boy’s engineering mind at work in preference to cuddly creatures. One of the first displays was ring tailed lemurs playing in a park setting. But Alex was more interested in the waterwheel in the moat surrounding the enclosure.

He was also enthusiastic about the dark “tunnels” housing reptiles, insects and platypus and in the “waterfalls” in the bear enclosure more than the bear. He raced around talking to other children, instructing and describing.

The famous lion enclosure brought back memories, as did the Aldabra giant tortoises that have been there longer than I. But much has changed. There are no more tiny brick and steel enclosures and every trace of the trains that ran around the grounds seems to have been eliminated. They have been replaced by some really fantastic displays. The seals and underwater area was fun and the jungle settings leading to the gorillas, tigers and elephants feel like you are walking through Africa, Thailand or Indonesia with giant bamboo gardens, farm plantings and signs in local languages. You can even get Malaysian/Indonesian food from a shop near the elephants.

There was also a very good Japanese garden which felt quite genuine. Alex was most interested in the playground. If the carousel was operational he would no doubt have had a ride on it.

The small primate displays, as you walked up at tree level, were great. Alex enjoyed watching the spider monkeys and capuchins eat. He was less interested in the gorilla display, despite the close up views of the creatures, and the pygmy hippopotamus. It’s a pity that it was so late in the day and the kiosks were closed. I could have done with an ice cream as it was very hot under the clear blue summer skies of Melbourne.

We caught the train from the zoo back to Flinders Street, following Alex’s instructions to ride on a train. He appreciated the boom gates and clanging bells of the level crossing by the station as well.

From magnificent Flinders Street station we wandered through narrow lanes lined with cafes and wine bars, tempting in food and atmosphere, but not in price. Alex fell asleep on my shoulder as we reached Burke Street Mall. While he slept we visited All Books, unsuccessfully searching for cheap kids reads. Then it was time to hunt for dinner.

One handy thing about holidaying within Australia is that I can use data mode on my Android phone. I hadn’t any maps or guides, so it was handy to pull up a map or do a search on the smartphone.
I was saddened to see half of the Myer department store, the section that used to house the toys, where ground level was scented by roasted nuts. Many childhood memories have disappeared in that demolition.
Though not particularly in the mood for Asian food we wandered up Little Bourke Street, Melbourne’s Chinatown. I had seen a place calling itself a kopitiam and wanted to take a look. I think it must be gone, but it was interesting to explore anyway. Many of the Chinese restaurants had an old feel about them, as if they hadn’t changed in decades. Mixed in with the “old fashioned” Cantonese cuisine were newer restaurants serving dishes from elsewhere in China. Most were too expensive for what we wanted to pay. We ducked into a shopping arcade off Little Burke and found a cafe named Jalan Alor, the famous Malaysian food street of Kuala Lumpur. The menu and decor looked pretty good too, so we had to try.

I ordered a nasi lemak (coconut rice) with curry chicken, good comparison dishes, while B had hokkien mee (noodles). Alex shared our dishes. Mine was very nice, though B’s couldn’t compare to the legendary Petaling Street (KL) version. Very few do, even in Malaysia. They didn’t seem to understand requests for sambal, but their lime juice looked genuine. We’d probably visit again.
We felt the urge to have dessert, but many of the shops appeared to be closing by the time we made our way back towards the hotel. As we crossed over Latrobe Street we were treated to a most amazing sunset as the orange sun shone straight down the road, the reflected light shimmering off the tram tracks. I knew then that I still loved this city.

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