Walking the Prom

My confession: I visited Wilsons Promontory – the southernmost tip of mainland Australia – a few months ago in June 2020, some time in the few precious weeks between Lockdown 1.0 and 2.0 but hadn’t the frame of mind to write about it when this corner of the world went raging into the dark night as the second Covid wave hit. 

Then the trip became an indelible (and sometimes bitter) memory of the freedom that I’d suddenly lost as we all became prisoners in the state I’m temporarily calling home when winter swept its chilly fingers across Melbourne. 

During those months, the Prom trip was talked about with nostalgia, with wistfulness, and with the overwhelming sense that it had taken place a lifetime ago when all I could see for months was a 5km-radius around where I lived. Lockdown wasn’t going to last forever, but confinement nevertheless played nasty mental games and made everyday a slog to go through. 

Only after Melbournians started to emerge bleary-eyed from the slow easing of restrictions did I think I could write about travel again, even if they’re about small trips (within the state of Victoria) that seem to hint at a new ‘Covid-normal’. Baby steps taken into remembering what I’ve always loved to do. 

Moving past this, the Prom is a walking, hiking paradise and miles of tracks exist for the beginner to the most-intrepid of bushwalkers…all 505 sq km of it, thanks to Parks Victoria. The touring map is an invaluable resource and that was the place I found myself coming back to each time I was planning the day. 

 

Walk down Fairy Cove, wind around Squeaky Beach and Picnic Bay or take that climb up Mt. Oberon then head to Tidal River – the Prom’s hub, so to speak – for yet another view of the Bass Strait. Visit as many lookout points, then watch the wombats crawl out of their hidey-holes at dusk and the kangaroos pop their heads up from the tall grass. Support the local businesses, browse the shops, eat at the numerous towns dotting the north of the Prom. 

Accommodation options are plentiful, but many cabins are self-contained and require a bit of planning when it comes to food options; many simply pack their dinners or lunches and do their own cookouts. 

The Prom trip was a short, short adventure that I’ll always be grateful for – I can say this now without that veil of helplessness . During thes unprecedented times, I choose to remember this short time as perfection.

 

Day-tripping the Bellarine Peninsula

The Bellarine Peninsula is probably the Great Ocean Road’s less well-known cousin and highly achievable in a day trip without a niggling regret that you likely should have stayed a night or 2 just to enjoy the damn place. It’s an hour and a half away from Melbourne and a small chunk of a long stretch of brilliant coastline that’s world-famous and slightly quieter—the way I love it.

Like Geelong, it wears its settlement-era heritage proudly but is quick to assure people that it’s got its feet firmly in this century too: a mix of old facades but swanky interiors, holiday beach-town feels, gourmet produce, lively strip malls and hipster cafés that vie for the better blend of barista-snooty type coffees.

Fitting parts of the Bellarine Taste Trail and helpful guiding from Seegeelong, going through the townships (hopefully not at record speed) and some beach walks was exactly what I wanted to do for the day I had. The final itinerary however, ended up as a haphazard mix of walking, eating and then trying to make the food shops while they were still open…and still get back to Melbourne in time before it got dark.

The Travel Companion and I started off at Torquay (the dramatically beautiful Surf Coast simply needed more time but we had to leave that for another day), then backtracked into Barwon Heads to watch some kite-surfing and look pathetically at the fine sand beaches, ate a harried lunch at an extremely crowded pie-place at Ocean Grove, carried onto Point Lonsdale for another walk and onto the quaintly historic Queenscliff. Then we thought we could still squeeze more things in, and so headed ‘inland’ to Drysdale, Wallington and Mannerim to look at some wineries and chocolate.

The good things never did go to plan, anyway.

The commute between Melbourne and the Bellarine isn’t a new one; in fact, Queenscliff was the port where paddlesteamers came and went, leaving fanciful imaginings of the ‘good ol’ days’ with the same windswept views.

Rushing through the townships might not have been the wisest idea especially after we returned to Melbourne an exhausted mess, but it’s silly to visit every wine shop in the area simply because these things are listed as attractive and colourful squares on the tourist map. Mark the stuff that appeals around the area and connect the dots with a pen – a rough route will eventually appear, pointing the way into and out of the peninsula…more so if the focus of the trip is on food over walks or hikes and be led by the opening and closing hours of the shops as well.

We drove off through Geelong’s city centre thinking however, that the beachy bits were more to our liking despite the fact that we’re the furthest people from surfers. There is something mesmerising about watching rough waves crashing into rock and wandering the meandering cliff walks while watching tiny figures of surfers searching for the perfect curl that it’s enough to plan a return trip…this time further west, to the surf coast.

Keppel Falls Trail

The Keppel Falls Trail was one I proudly completed by accident. Having parked gamely at the Steavenson Falls and doing a small circuit of what the waterfall, we gave in to the temptation of just going up a little bit, just to the first lookout to see how the trail’s like.

Of course we wouldn’t finish the hike. We’ll just go back down again after that, in time for lunch. These were the famous last words that we told ourselves. 

From there onwards, it became a silly game of ‘just to the next lookout point’, until we realised we were truly and seriously halfway around the trail and to go back would take the same amount of time going forward and completing it.

The well-formed track is essentially an 11-12 km loop that can be broken in up in several places. It’s well-marked too, with vegetation that’s showing great signs of regrowth. The uphill hike from the Steavenson Falls is probably the steeper part of the trail but gradually flattens out as you coast through to the De La Rue Lookout and straight onto the stunning next.

It is not the easiest hike but neither is it the worst when it comes to undulating terrain. The trail starting from Steavenson Falls is what I’d recommend starting at, as nothing really compares to the sudden clearing of the bush to the magnificent panoramic views from the first lookout point.

The entire hike took about 3-ish hours, but leave more time to appreciate nature (at higher elevation, the fragrance of the golden wattle flowers permeates the whole place), more even if you choose to have lunch at the lookout.

The Warburton Valley and Marysville

During the long AFL final weekend, it was easy and blissful enough to pack up some things and do a drive eastwards towards Warburton and Marysville for the great outdoors while many stayed in Melbourne clad in yellow and black.

The Yarra Valley touring map is a good indicator of what’s worth seeing, though I was more interested first and foremost, in what the walks were.

Skirting the Yarra Valley – I figured it was best to do the hard walks and all first before hunkering down with gourmet food and wine – and heading to Marysville via East Warburton (on the C511/C513), the drive through Warburton began peacefully enough though it started to become clear that it was a race to complete as many walks as we could before a cold front promising rain and cold wind was bound to pass through some time in the early afternoon and evening.

There were more we could have accomplished but this was generally what we covered:

1. The Warburton township loop

An easy, pretty trail that loops around town as the name suggests, by the banks of the Yarra. Go for 5km, or if you’re brave, for 16km.

2. Mt. Donna Buang: 10 mile turntable to summit

I hesitate to call Donna Buang a mountain, but it is the considered one in the southern reaches of the Victorian Alps of the Great Dividing Range with an elevation of 1250m, high enough (and close enough to Melbourne) that it can get some snow in the winter months. Get to the 21-m high lookout tower at Donna Buang for a view of Melbourne and the Yarra Valley before trying the Grade 2 (I found this oddly steeper than the Grade 3 Keppel Falls hiking trail) 10-Mile turntable hike to the car park and back up again.

3. The Redwood Forest

Planted in the 1930s after the original eucalypt forest was cleared as part of a scientific study, the small patch of the redwood forest magically comes into view after driving through rough, pot-holey unsealed road. It’s awe-inspiring indeed, taking fairy-tale-esque sinister menace when the sky darkens and the wind blows through. But what started as a study of the Californian Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), in recent memory the trees seem to exist solely for instagrammers’ bragging rights.

That was as much as we could do before it was time to get to Marysville via the C511 (aka Reefton Spur) and C513 – both mountainous, curvy roads less famous than the Black Spur on the other side of the mountain. Tricky to drive, somewhat technical, but beautiful in and out.

I understood the appeal of Marysville the moment we turned up along the beautiful tree-lined main road that heads through and out of the tiny town. It’s got the prettiest birds making a nuisance of themselves as well, but what really stood out was the sheer resilience of the townfolk and nature as Marysville rose out of its ashes like a phoenix after the Black Saturday fires in 2009.

Victoria High Country

The north-eastern bit of Victoria isn’t a place I’d ever visited and the Easter holidays made me strain at my leash a little just to get outdoors. The entire Great Alpine Road journey – from Wangaratta to Bairnsdale – felt like the answer to it, though the full journey (from Melbourne to Melbourne in a roughly circular route) was way too much for just a short 2-day trip up north and back again.

From Wangaratta to Metung or a whopping 339 km/211 miles, it’s a non-stop ride in the car on sealed roads would just take about 5 hours.

I didn’t feel that brave or eager to do it all in a day or 2.

Instead, the travelling companion and I did the trip up to Wangaratta amidst near-gridlocked traffic (everyone it seemed, had the same idea), went through Milawa, Bright and finally through the Tawonga Gap to Mount Beauty where we could finally rest our heads for the night after that very scenic drive.

Dotted with small towns along the way, there’s always something small to do or see and even more side-roads to take, all of which would take up a few more hours than you think you need. Do the gourmet stretch in Milawa, then turn every which way and that and there’ll be trails to walk, clearly marked, with enough nature to satisfy the most demanding hiker for miles around.

It’s high season in the weeks leading up to and past Easter. Visiting just before the Autumn festival at Bright, biking season was fully in swing before the snow hits, finding accommodation there was near impossible unless you’ve done some booking early on for the best rooms.

Thankfully, we found something in the shadow of Mt. Bogong, which was a short drive away from the trails in the Alpine National park (past Falls Creek) and some local, short walks which were just as lovely in atypically warm weather. What we didn’t manage to do was Mt. Hotham and the road to Omeo, though it’s something I’m beginning to realise can’t (and shouldn’t) be done in a day, at least, not without rushing it through and missing the chance to savour the day and the hikes.

 

The merry, brutal world of Melbourne property rentals

My rude and green introduction to the world of Melbourne rental properties started one early Saturday morning in January where at least 30 desperate, harried and stressed people turned up for a property inspection in Brunswick West. All that I’ve read about renting in Melbourne had been overwhelmingly negative—about prices, the high season (exactly the wrong time to enter it, as I did), the ugly bidding wars—and thus far, I was proven right. Getting a rental home started to feel just as bad as searching for employment.

Despite the property downturn, rents were still soaring, simply because demand outstripped supply.

What I’ve learnt so far:

That the reasonably-priced apartment a little off the city (not even in the trendy suburbs like Carlton or Fitzroy) were going for at least $400 and more per week and was way out of my budget.

Smart viewing

Realestate.com.au became my default home page for a period of time when I would obsessively check for new things that came up, but remember, the rental photos are sometimes, too good to be true. They’re shown in the best light (quite literally sometimes), from odd angles and heights that make the space larger than it really is. A way that I’ve tried to go around this is to use Google street view to look at the property itself and the street that it’s on.

Reading between the lines

An over-emphasis in the description on the property’s location and surroundings and too little light shed on its interior might in itself, be revealing about what’s not said. If the pictures don’t show the bedrooms or the bathrooms, start asking yourself why too. If too many details on ‘natural lighting’ and ‘freshly painted jobs’ (what’s it covering?) are given and not much else, there’s also a reason for it.

An inspection will give you a better idea.

The House Inspection

Most estate agents don’t allow tenant application unless the property has been inspected, or rather, viewed. Many house inspections take place on Saturdays to accommodate the working crowd and just a few take place on weekdays at very inconvenient times. Coming into the game late, I found myself going to a string of them, fitting them in as and when I could. In fact, I’d first opted to drive around the suburbs that appealed personally to me like Heidelberg, Ivanhoe, Essendon to check them out first. When I had time, I’d search out a unit by driving to the area itself and do a bit of a walk-around to see where the amenities are.

Soon enough, I had the same questions coming over and over again:

How ‘nice’ is the neighbourhood? Is it tree-lined? Are the rest of the houses surrounding the unit a little dodgy? Is the street near a main road? How accessible is this place to public transportation, or do I need a car to drive everywhere?

Obviously the property’s interior is something I can’t make any judgement on, but this is a good way to get a feel for the overall surroundings and how comfortable you feel. I’d thrown away some tentative inspections because of this alone.

When the actual inspection comes however, keep your eyes peeled for all the small things that are glossed over in the glamorous photos that the agents post. To date, I’ve found water damage on the ceilings, blackened carpets, a funky smell that won’t go away, peeling countertops and ceilings..and the list goes on.

Mentally match what you see with the website’s description of the place and see if it all adds up for you.

The Application Process

Once it sank in that the Melbourne rental market has its own peculiar cycle, I’ve gone through many forums about renting. The advice ranged from comprehensive to ridiculous in the competitive race to win the apartment of your choice. But many also suggested that getting every scrap of documentation  you could—of your previous rental ledger, your identification, your employment situation, and even a cover letter to explain your circumstances so that you stand out.

For those without a stable income or rental history, this is the most comprehensive blog post I’ve read so far that got me started on meticulously documenting everything.

1. Fill up the 1Form

1 Form is a centralised tenancy application form, so to speak—fill up just one form, go through the tedious, lengthy questions of identity, employment, finances just once. Then upload your supporting documentation. Many estate agencies (though not all) use the 1Form document.

2. Signing up with a realestate.com.au or a domain.com.au account

If you’ve got an app, it’ll ping each time new properties come up and depending on your desperation, you can book inspections online or even send in the 1form from there. All estate agents require inspection before you apply, and some companies require an agent number for a tenancy application to go through.

3. Get 1Form ready before the property inspection.

As soon as you’re done with it, have a small talk with the agent about the application process—it differs slightly across the board—and send it all through on your phone. Or if you prefer, print out everything (documentation, ID, letter and sources of income), including the rental application form, put it in a folder and hand it directly to the agent after the inspection.

I do put my foot down on dressing like I’m heading for a bank job interview however. It’s been said that first impressions count, but that wasn’t what I did at all.

I was fortunate. An agent actually replied to the message I left in the void of realestate.com.au regarding a property I wanted to view and because the timing suited the both of us, I inspected it, and submitted my application for it the same day, then got the approval for it after weekend.

The paperwork was far from over, however. There was the bond lodgement to settle, the rental payment and all the signings to complete, the moving in.

But that was at least a load off my mind.

Getting a Car Down Under

The search for a used car is always daunting.

Waltzing into a car showroom and pointing a gnarled finger at a spanking new, fancy vehicle is not something my budget allows, so it’s back to the drawing board (hard research) before looking up private car sellers and dealers.

But as extensive as the public transport network is in Melbourne, getting around without a car can be frustrating, particularly if it involves too many changes and roundabout routes that take over an hour.

A browse through forums is a useful way to get started. Forums like reddit provide threads of conversations that can range from meaningful and thoughtful to downright silly. But it’s not unusual to uncover some gems of advice regarding how to choose and pick a car.

Many people have mechanic friends or even mobile mechanics (who operate out of a truck) that they might drag down to a test-drive session and that’s their surety. But for people who don’t know much about cars and don’t have such helpful friends, I’m guessing it’s back to the internet for that kind of education, even though it can’t quite trump having a good mechanic looking at it for you.

So to the dealer, or not?

  • Too many people say that dealers are slimy, slick-talking bastards who can’t be trusted, who promise you the moon and give you nothing when it all goes wrong.

Carsguide provides a good starting point for vehicle performance if you need help determining the make/model you want. Then look at the year of production. The engine capacity. Petrol or diesel. Mileage. Accident history. Finally, check if the price is commensurate with how much of a beating the car has taken. Narrow down your choices as you do your research.

  • Carsales is massive site that also provides this information and is the most extensive one I’ve come across so far, with a good mix of dealer cars and private seller vehicles.

Car Dealers

Dealers would offer ‘driveaway prices’, meaning – in theory at least – the price you see upfront is what you get. And supposedly, they handle the additional pesky paperwork for you when all you want is to take your new wheels out for a spin. But they could scrimp on everything else just to get a wider profit margin: Compulsory Third-Party Insurance, Stamp Duty, Luxury Car Tax, Registration (rather, the annual road tax you pay for it, for short) and how much of it’s really left when you finally purchase it.

Private Sellers

This is the way to go, according to the vociferous contributors, who insist that private sellers are better in every way. Less rubbish out of their arse, with slightly more honesty. If you’re a people-person, you’d like calling each and every seller and having a teeth-gritting conversation with them about the car they’re selling. You’ll at least get to know the human face and the story behind the vehicle, which is probably important to most folks.

Should it all work out, remember that you’ll be responsible for handling the paperwork that comes with it: the roadworthy certificate of the vehicle, transferring the ownership and paying the fee for it at Vicroads.

The Procedure

It took about an exhausting week and a half of calling, asking, inspecting and test-driving the make and model that I was looking for. Essentially, it was this: test-drive. Inspect. Be prepared to walk away. Repeat the cycle. Bargain and negotiate (if possible). How much you want to try to knock the initial price down is well, up to you and your ability to match or outdo the seller’s smooth-talking.

I found mine with Garry and Warren Smith Mazda in the end and paid a higher price for it because of the low mileage and how it ticked all the boxes that I had, so that was that.

This is a useful checklist to download and tick-off that will help you make a more informed decision. There’s quite a fair bit to look out for, but a mobile mechanic like this one may help you get some peace of mind.

In the meantime, it was about finding creative (though exhausting) ways of getting around, like utilising combination of free trams in the city and lots of walking.

Car-sharing

An alternative way to get around is a car-share option. It’s not Uber-share, but rather, it has to do with rental companies offering car rentals by the hour, with varying rental policies.

There’re several here, like GoGet, Flexicar, RACV car share (which doesn’t require a yearly membership). RACV worked best for me, and like most things these days, involve the heavy use of an app to get it all to function.

The Settling-in Process

I waffle on big decisions.

To pick a place to settle in – at least for the next few years – isn’t an easy decision, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve made a few choices, did several turnarounds, then chose again and am still wondering if I’ve done it all correctly. Fickle, fickle, fickle.

Melbourne (Australia, not Florida) is it for now, with the partner, which sort of makes things easier and not, with also the view that this might just be a temporary location before we pack and move again.

An apartment in the Docklands via Airbnb for about a month and a half is what we got before we flew in – though this might have suspiciously been a sublet that isn’t quite legal. With property prices at an all-time high, the apartment is a bit of a rare find, though unexpectedly ill-furnished, dirty and quite lacking in basic amenities.

Jet-lagged and tired from the packing up, we hit the ground running with a huge number of things set before us: applying for medicare, stocking the apartment with daily trips to places like Kmart, Target, Coles, Woolworths, Harris Scarfe, Big W, getting a bank account done up, buying a printer (online!), looking at cars, license conversion, scouting out permanent rental places, jobs…and the list pretty much goes on and on.

Transitions are never easy. But it’s a new start I’m hoping to get very excited over…soon.

Short winter days in Melbourne

I’m entirely unused to spending just a few days in a place that will probably take years to know inside out. Having been to Melbourne several times over the past two decades (nothing like the passing of the years to show how much mileage you’ve gotten along with it), this has by far, been the longest gap in which I’ve eschewed one of the world’s most liveable and coolest city in favour of other far-flung places.

With four days, there was just too much to see, too much to eat, so little time. The rich, cultural diversity of this place can’t make it any swankier honestly, and the inner-city ethnic enclaves or neighbourhoods are probably what I prize most about this city, which is its greatest strength and possibly, weakness considering the unrest that happens from time to time.

That said, head to the small, unassuming place of Oakleigh and get lost in the numerous Greek offerings there; enter Springvale and Richmond (now a gentrified area) and inhale some Vietnamese pho; head to Glenferrie road and buy Indonesian grub; go for a molecular gastronomic fusion-type dinner…and the list goes on and on.

Renting a car helped immensely considering we were staying entirely out of the city centre in Heidelberg – the best cafes are tucked in odd corners and in various suburbs after all, and experiencing the winter quiet is one of the oddest but fondest of my memories. Going around without using toll roads was an exercise in patience but with the help of a 16-year-old Melways (a bulky street directory that the travel companion actually once owned and never threw out) and a very useful, pommy-sounding app called Waze, we managed.

Sometimes, getting around is like revisiting old haunts, which was what TC and I did. I insisted on going down the Mornington Peninsula, taking the scenic route past the freeway from Mt. Martha to Dromana to Rosebug and onward to Sorento, just to get away from the city. There wasn’t time to go to the Grampians or to do several vineyards as we tend to do in previous trips down under.

Not all sunshine and roses, obviously. The glitz is weighed down by junkies in gritty corners of the city, the property squeeze and the influx of immigrants that all my friends and relatives talk about and well, the horrors of traffic that TC attempts to regale me with, especially the dreaded hook-turns and driving with trams breathing down your neck. I couldn’t get over how expensive Melbourne had gotten nonetheless; the amount of snootiness with food is overwhelming at times (the food of the millennial – a fancy avocado toast – quite literally costs AUD $19-$20) and simply wished we had time to see the northern Victorian country towns.

Beneath the surface

It’s hard to write about Vancouver.

Officially, it has been named one of the most liveable cities in the world, even through skyrocketing property prices (thanks to foreign speculation and buying), with a huge and impressive backcountry of British Columbia backing it up. An hour’s drive northwards brings you to Squamish, a haven for outdoorsy types. Drive east and you’d still be hard-pressed to escape the beautiful scenery that encircles the entire place.

In Vancouver itself, there is a multitude of fascinating neighbourhoods that hold their own ethnic enclaves and by extension, the cuisine on offer is as varied and authentic as the immigrants themselves who bring a wealth of diversity to the city. Gastown–the oldest part of the city centre–is a hodgepodge of quirky restaurants and souvenir shops. Walk a few streets down and the skyscrapers attest to the financial core of the place along with the waterfront properties where the super-rich cavort and preen. Whip out your wallet if the shops appeal…though it was London Drugs that I gravitated towards, each and every time.

The kind of Vancouver that the travel companion and I wanted to experience was the daily life that most Vancouverites lived. We went grocery-shopping, we cooked dinner and did laundry in a rental apartment, took the subway, drove out of town for a bit and went rock-climbing in a gym that looked at us funny because of the way we belayed. We even fell sick and stayed in when we could, as TC came down with a sore throat that soon turned into a full-blown flu. We didn’t cram as many touristy activities as we normally do because this time around, we have an entirely different purpose driving our visit. There were some places that we visited which were absolutely breathtaking (Port Moody and Coquitlam for instance) and others which we didn’t think we liked at all.

And amidst the glittering picture that many travel guide print of this place, our experience showed that many juggled the same anxieties of living in a city as they fretted over paying their mortgages, and a deep divide in the ethnic and wealth classes that seems to be growing ever deeper. The polite friendliness is always there, though it might well be a veneer that masks a kind of social aloofness that I found surprising, though it’s probably arguable that all cities demonstrate this sort of alienating trend and a standoffishness that skewed my initial impression of Vancouver.

The ability to speak English isn’t a requirement to settle in Canada (or so said an alarmingly chatty cabbie who talked about investor programs and problems the population faces in general); the result is the growth of insular communities that don’t interact outside of themselves not only because of language difficulties. The part where TC and I stayed was a rental AirBnB apartment and I’d barely heard English spoken at all in the days we were there. The ring of Asian shops and eateries had for a moment, however, had me wondering if I was really in Canada. A short drive into North Vancouver however, showed yet a different side of the inhabiting population.

A cousin of mine who lives in Vancouver raves about the place, nonetheless. Having been in Canada for over 3 decades, the picture that she paints of Vancouver is quite a different one that we’ve experienced, so the contradictory information is giving us pause.

We left the city after a week. Unlike some places, we weren’t exactly sorry to say goodbye, though the awe-inspiring landscape was difficult to leave. Vancouver’s left us mixed, though it’s admittedly a rather gloomy impression I had of it by the end of that short week.

1 2 3 23