Melbourne appears to be in a bit of friendly competition with Sydney, rather like the one we Chicagoans feel with New York City. They have many similarities. Both are on beautiful harbors ringed with great beaches. Sydney has the Blue Mountains nearby, Melbourne the Dandenong Range. Melbourne is known as a shopper’s haven with a designer’s outlets and numerous specialty shops. It also is a haven for jocks; if we had been so inclined we could have taken a tour of all the sporting venues here. The Formula One Grand Prix was taking place this weekend adding to the crowds in the city, so we headed out to the countryside. Even in port we could hear the throbbing of the car engines as they raced through the city. Melbourne just finished a new ferris wheel located right on the shore. It is meant to be like the London Eye with air conditioned gondolas that give great views of the city. It was just finished and ran for about a month until the high temperatures this city endures in the summer caused the metal girders to warp. Whoops....
About a month ago this area was in the world news for its catastrophic bush fires; over 200 people lost their lives as they failed to escape the flames. We could see signs of the damage as we headed into the Dandenongs. Fire is a capricious thing. It tore down the middle of a vineyard, leaving the vines on either side untouched. It destroyed one house and left the next one standing. More amazing to us was seeing how the area had already begun to return to green. Many of the plants native to Australia have fire as part of their life cycle. Seeds need intense heat to sprout. And sprouting they were. The vineyards however, suffered from the intense heat the fire generated, even if the plants escaped the flames. We ate lunch at a vineyard that had not bothered to pick even though the grapes looked OK to our untutored eyes. Perhaps they could produced a blend with smokey overtones from those grapes. A sad joke.
Locals have complained that until recently they were not allowed to burn or trim the brush around their homes. That has changed big time since the fires. We saw a controlled fire burning today conducted by the Department of Sustainability and Ecology. Our guide said it is not so fondly referred to as the Department of Scorched Earth.
Each vineyard we have visited has a unique feel and identity. One we visited today was setting up a huge tent and jumbotron TV’s for a rock concert that was to take place in a few hours. It would have been great to linger on that green lawn with a bottle of shiraz and enjoy the music. The Chandon vineyard was established by the French company that makes champagne and specialized in sparking wines. We’ve never tasted a sparkling shiraz before and were tempted to bring one back to the cabin. Because today is Saturday. we were far from alone as we toured the vineyards of the Yarra valley. Wine is a big deal here and the locals were out in great numbers showing their support. Each row of grapes had a rose bush growing at its end. We were told tht this is to detect plant diseases that affect roses before they affect grapes. The Kiwi’s told us that this is a lot of hooey, but it did look pretty.
We took a train ride on Puffing Billy, a narrow gauge steam engine that had been built to take new settlers from the downtown Melbourne area up into the hills. Puffing Billy must have had a lot to do when gold was discovered in the Dandenongs. More gold was brought out from this area than California including the largest nugget ever discovered. In the early 1950’s Puffing Billy was suffering from declining ridership when its tracks were covered by a landslide. That would have been the end of it, but local train enthusiasts replaced the track and run and maintain the train today. A fun touristy thing to do sans wine.