x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

A cultural weekend in effortlessly cool Melbourne

A quick stroll through Melbourne's city centre and I quickly observed a distinct display of edginess and creativity.

Centre Way Arcade in Melbourne is famous for the staggering variety of boutiques and restaurants.
Centre Way Arcade in Melbourne is famous for the staggering variety of boutiques and restaurants.

It's that moment you never particularly expect or want to happen while you're on the road, the reason we purchase travel insurance. My iPod was staring at me with a blank white screen of death. The lost music and photos bothered me for only a moment as they were all backed up at home. But I'd also been using this handy device to store my passport and card copies; addresses; as a way to keep in touch with family and friends - and I had just typed up a travel column on it.

Burdened with a huge backpack, I was standing outside a Melbourne train station with absolutely no idea where to go as the directions and contact details to meet my friend were on this gadget. I let out a huge sigh, found the nearest coffee shop and sat down to think about my next move. A few phone calls later and I was reunited with my friend, but I still had plenty of travel documents to retrieve and a column to re-write. I have now switched to using pen and paper for numbers, addresses and the rest of my articles. Lesson learnt. As for my iPod, I posted it back home from Melbourne with the warranty and carried on with my travels. That's all I could do really, carry on.

A quick stroll through Melbourne's city centre and I quickly observed a distinct display of edginess and creativity, whether it was the pedestrian subway doubled up as an art gallery, the numerous alleyways filled with independent cafes or the second-hand boutiques. Melbourne had a quirky style for a big city. I stayed with an old school friend in Brunswick, a charming bicycle-filled suburb about 20 minutes from the centre. Getting around Brunswick itself was easy enough on a bike, and the tram system was relatively cheap to take into the city centre (about A$2.80; Dh8.70 for a day).

I hadn't seen a kangaroo (or koala) since I arrived in Australia but the meat shops and supermarkets had plenty of aisles full of kangaroo steak, mince and jerky. If I was going to try it anywhere, it had to be here. We bought a few steaks from the local market and stayed in for a 'roo dinner. It's apparently more healthy than lamb or beef, and from my experience, has much more chew. Although I would definitely recommend trying it for the novelty, kangaroo meat won't be making a regular appearance in my kitchen.

I've always been fascinated by Aussie Rules football. What I had seen on TV was a pile of players in the middle of a field playing violent rugby, being cheered on by an entire stadium; there had to be more to it. Through a friend who was a season ticket holder, I managed to get a seat (A$20; Dh62) at a local match, the Essendon Bombers playing the Richmond Tigers. I also happened to be in Melbourne over the weekend of the city's annual Long Walk, an awareness walk initiated by Michael Long, the first indigenous Essendon football player to stand up against racism.

The walk began around Melbourne's Central Business District and ended at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, where the Aussie Rules match was due to take place. There were stages full of aboriginal performers, musicians and aboriginal rights activists. It was interesting to learn from locals just how complex the relationship between Australia's original inhabitants and the later settlers still is. The Essendon-Richmond game was preceded by a match between aboriginal and non-aboriginal teams. Aussie Rules has much more strategy than met my inexpert eye. It was great fun to watch, though, and I joined in with the crowds screaming "go Bombers!" and attempted to join in the local team songs. A great night of entertainment ended with the Bombers ahead, but the drop in temperature to a chilling 4°C by the end of the two-and-a-half-hour game made me ready to leave the stadium.

View On the road in a larger map

On my final Sunday in Melbourne we cycled to a nearby organic farm cafe, Ceres, in Brunswick. Like most cafes I'd been to so far, it had its own kitschy quality. It was great to see kids interacting with the local farm animals, and the environmental awareness of this big city gives it an almost community-like spirit. Aside from the minor hassle with technology, there was a second bump on my travel road. The situation in Bangkok, my next stop, has been fluctuating between violent political protests and periods of calm. I was due to fly there to begin exploring Indochina but the clashes had now worsened, the death toll had risen, the British Embassy had closed temporarily and travel to Thailand's capital was strongly advised against by the UK Foreign Office. Slightly nervous, I decided to go ahead. Flights were still leaving to Bangkok, the Indochina tour I had booked was still running, and I had spoken to some travellers just returned from Thailand who insisted it was safe in most areas.

Although my trip to Melbourne was initially just a stop to see an old school friend, I received a pleasant surprise and a great Aussie cultural weekend. Sorry, Sydney (and Sydney-siders), you're very pretty, but Melbourne is just effortlessly cooler. Next week: Ismat touches down in Bangkok on the next leg of her around-the-world journey.