Australia, as we all know, is full of amazing sights that you won’t see anywhere else in the world. Even so, we came across a most unexpected one on our last day in Australia, when we visited Panny’s, a famous chocolate factory on Phillip Island, a couple of hours from Melbourne. Panny turned out to be an elderly gent named Kodandapani Lakshmanan, who looked and sounded as though he had just arrived from Mylapore. In fact, Panny, a mechanical engineer, had arrived on this windswept island via Malaysia and Papua New Guinea, where he had worked on cocoa and coconut plantations, before immigrating Down Under. He’s now something of a legend in Australia. The morning we visit, his chocolate factory is overrun by Aussie families and their excited children fulfilling their Willy Wonka fantasies — there’s an entire village modelled from chocolate, a life-sized chocolate replica of Michelangelo’s David, and a chocolate waterfall from which cascades 400 kg of the finest Belgian molten stuff every hour. And then there’s the restaurant attached to his factory where, apart from a counter loaded with gooey confections, there’s a curry lunch on offer, with totally authentic masala dosa-style potatoes and cabbage thoran. Fifteen years in Australia have turned Panny into a super-successful Australian entrepreneur, but they haven’t taken the Tamil out of him.
Rewind to our first day in Australia, and there’s another Australian-Indian encounter. As we drive into town from Melbourne airport and check into our hotel, the dapper young man at the reception counter with a broad Aussie accent looks at my passport and exclaims — “You from Delhi? Me too — I grew up in Rohini! I’m upgrading you to a bigger room, Auntyji, no extra charge — and I’m sending up a bottle of champagne!” That happy start sets the tone for our visit to Melbourne and the Victoria region.
It’s the last week of June, wet and freezing mid-winter weather, as we set out to explore Melbourne on foot. The city is a mix of Victorian grandeur and avant-garde glass and steel in strange geometric shapes. On one bank of the Yarra River, which runs through the city, stand the stately red brick Flinders Street Station and the soaring neo- Gothic spires of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Facing them on the other bank is the Eureka Tower, with the highest viewing deck in the southern hemisphere. Its glass façade is emblazoned with a rectangle of 24-carat gold slashed by a dramatic line of red — symbolising the 1850s gold rush that made Melbourne rich (but also took its toll in human lives). The Yarra’s waters run so clean and crystal clear, you could drink from it; and yet it was once a toxic brew of sewage and industrial effluents, with such an overpowering stench that Melbourne began to be called Smellbourne. Political will and concerted community effort worked the miracle of cleaning up the Yarra — something for Ms. Uma Bharati to chew over before she begins her clean-up of the Ganga and the Yamuna.
From Flinders Street Station we set off on a guided tour of Melbourne’s ‘Hidden Secrets’, wandering through the back lanes of the city centre, to discover more layers of the city’s history. We amble past a sumptuous colonial-era tearoom, elegant art deco buildings, and a haunting mural of one of its original inhabitants — an aboriginal girl (the land on which Melbourne stands was bought from aboriginals by an early settler in 1835, for a paltry bundle of blankets, knives and other knick-knacks). Close to the prime shopping area of Collins Street, we marvel at the exquisite mosaic floors of fashionable Block Arcade, the work of early Italian immigrants. Melbourne is perhaps Australia’s most multi-cultural city, and later arrivals too have made their presence visible through the plethora of little Chinese, Vietnamese and Greek eateries in the city centre. There are lots of trendy restaurants and bars here too, renowned for their OzMod — modern Australian — cuisine. OzMod prides itself on impeccably fresh ingredients, unfussily prepared, with imaginative pairings of unlikely ingredients. In this emphatically foodie city, everyone pronounces as authoritatively on food and wine as though they were judges on MasterChef Australia. In fact, as we discovered at breakfast, lunch and dinner on our only day in the city, it’s almost impossible to eat badly here, or to have a glass of wine or a coffee that’s substandard.
Melbourneans are also emphatically sporty, and the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) is hallowed ground. My fellow- traveller on this trip, Ashwin Rajagopal, duly makes the pilgrimage and returns happily to report that a portrait of Sachin Tendulkar is now prominently displayed there. But it’s Australian Rules Football rather than cricket that’s the big national craze, and seats for the Grand Finals are bought several months in advance. I am told the story of a man who arrived there on the big day and was astonished to find the seat next to his neighbour empty. “That seat was for my wife, but she died,” explained his neighbour. “That’s so sad,” the man said, “but couldn’t you have given it to a friend or a relation?” “Nah, mate — they’re all at her funeral,” he replied.
Early next morning, we set off on what must be one of the world’s great road journeys, along the Great Ocean Road which winds for 250 km along the coast. It’s another freezing day, with gale force winds that nearly blow us off our feet as we stop to take in the awesome sight of the angry Southern Ocean (earlier known as the Antarctic Ocean), crashing against the shore. As awesome is the sight of wet-suited surfers, undaunted by the icy weather and the stormy waters, riding the waves. The road, an amazing feat of engineering and sheer hard labour over fifteen years, built by returning veterans of World War I, is flanked by thickly forested hills on one side and rocky cliffs dropping into the endless expanse of the ocean on the other. It twists and turns, revealing spectacular new vistas at each bend, as it passes through fishing villages, lighthouses and charming little towns — Bell’s Beach, Torquay, Anglesea, Lorne. The rain peters out, and a giant double rainbow arcs from the sky into the ocean where its vibgyor colours continue to shimmer underwater — a magical sight.
Another magical experience awaits at our next stop, Kennett River. As we step out of our car, a large, brilliantly-coloured parakeet swoops down from a roadside tree, hoping to be fed. Our delightful mentor and companion on this trip, Cassandra O’Brien, who plans ahead for every eventuality, produces a packet of birdseed, and suddenly more parakeets and a pair of giant white cockatoos swarm around us. One perches boldly on my head, and stays there long enough for me to have that One Memorable Photograph of my visit to this strange and wondrous continent.
We carry on past the picturesque town of Apollo Bay, along a stretch of the road known as Port Campbell National Park, famous for its dramatic rock formations rising from the ocean, sculpted by the erosive force of waves and wind on the limestone cliffs. The most famous (and most photographed) are the pinnacles of rock called the Twelve Apostles (now only seven remain), and London Bridge. The latter was once connected to the shore like a causeway, but one day, in the 1990s, the landward end suddenly collapsed, leaving two tourists stranded in the middle of the ocean. It sure wasn’t their lucky day — though the couple were eventually rescued, they were on an illicit romantic rendezvous, and the huge media coverage of the incident ended up making their secret affair headline news.
A bit further on is the Loch Ard Gorge, site of a famous shipwreck in 1878 with just two survivors — a teenage girl and the young ship’s apprentice who heroically rescued her (but alas no romance followed — they went their separate ways). Sheer cliffs, crashing waves, hidden rocky reefs and dangerous currents characterise this stretch, known as the Shipwreck Coast, where the remains of hundreds of ships are believed to lie at the bottom of the ocean.
Further on, the ocean is calmer, the coastline gentler, and we see koala bears perched on gum trees along the roadside. Koalas have no nerve endings on their bottoms, so they can sit for hours without moving, which is what they do for 20 hours a day. They look very cuddly indeed, but we’re warned not to try approaching as they have vicious claws. A short while later, as if by command performance for us rubberneckers, we come upon a group of kangaroos posing picturesquely by the roadside, but they hop away in great bounding leaps as soon as we come close enough to take pictures. We reach journey’s end at Warrnambool where, between May and September, southern right whales migrate to give birth and bring up their calves in this sheltered spot. At the end of a day of many marvellous sights, it doesn’t matter that we don’t see any.
The next morning, it’s on to the Yarra Valley, famous for its wineries and dairy farms. It’s a lovely five-hour drive along inland roads, and Cassandra keeps us well-fuelled with TimTams — possibly the most addictive chocolate biscuits in the world, and a great Australian favourite. In sharp contrast to the wild, rugged beauty of the Ocean Road, this is gentle pastoral country with low rolling hills, herds of woolly sheep, grazing cows, and impeccably manicured vineyards. We don’t see a single human being, though — a novelty for us Indians, but not surprising, after all: the entire population of this vast continent is a bit less than that of Delhi. We spend our day in the Yarra Valley indulging the taste-buds. We swill different kinds of sparkling wine (including a rare and delicious red sparkling Pinot Noir) at Domaine Chandon, established in 1984 by the famous French champagne makers, Moet et Chandon. Then it’s on to the Rochford winery, where my companions take a Segway tour of the vineyards — I’m too unsteady on my feet to join them, having downed a few glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon. After a gourmet seafood lunch at the winery, more epicurean delights await us — a visit to a dairy farm to taste 15 kinds of fabulous fresh cheeses; and then to the Yarra Valley Chocolaterie, where (giving thanks for the elasticated waistband of my trousers), I sample a variety of sinfully rich handmade chocolates.
On from the Yarra Valley to our final destination — Phillip Island. En route, we see signs to the nearby town of Winchelsea, a place famous in Australian history. In 1859, a wealthy Winchelsea landowner decided to import a few wild rabbits (an animal unknown in Australia) from England, to impress his guests and provide some game for hunting. The rabbits, as is their wont, multiplied. Within a few years, with no natural predators to check their proliferation, millions of them were lolloping across the continent, devouring every bit of vegetation and turning vast tracts of Australia into desert. Eventually, a virus fatal to rabbits, myxomatosis, was procured from South America, and succeeded in killing off most, but a few developed an immunity, and they’re multiplying again…We bypass Winchelsea — it isn’t rabbits, after all, that have brought us to this corner of Australia, but another, rarer creature.
By the time we reach Phillip Island the rain is pelting down. Still, we hurry down to the beach and take our places in an open-air wooden amphitheatre, because The Show is about to begin. Phillip Island is home to over 15,000 little penguins. At dawn, they swim out to sea, often covering more than 100 km in a day, in search of fish. At sunset, when the penguins judge it is dark enough to provide camouflage — their navy blue upper feathers make it difficult for predators to spot them in the water — they make their way home. At 5.29 pm, the exact sunset hour that day, an extraordinary spectacle begins to unfold before our eyes: out in the ocean we see row upon row of little penguins, jauntily riding the waves that carry them bobbing and skimming swiftly across the water, to deposit them onto the beach. There, they shake themselves dry and fall into neat single-file lines before waddling off to nest in their burrows in the hillside. The Phillip Island Penguin Parade is the kind of sight that’s impossible to describe in phrases that aren’t clichés — breathtaking, enchanting, unforgettable. But it was indeed all of these, a sight worth travelling the 10,000 km from Delhi to the Melbourne region to see.
Singapore Airlines has daily flights from Delhi to Singapore, with a convenient connecting flight to Melbourne for approximately Rs 60,000 one-way. The Delhi- Singapore sector is on the newly introduced double-decker Airbus A380, and Singapore-Melbourne on a Boeing 777-300.
From the airport to the city , take a shuttle service (skybus.com.au) or a CitiCar limousine (citicar.com.au). If you’d like to use public transport in the city, buy a myki card, available at Melbourne Visitor Centre at Federation Square, or ask for it at your hotel. V/Line (vline.com.au) organises bus tours of the Great Ocean Road and other destinations in Victoria, as well as train connections. Check out visitmel bourne.com for more information.
Where to stay
>Melbourne Crown Promenade (from AUD 468 doubles, crownpromenade.com.au) has spacious, stylish rooms within walking distance from the Central Business District; and a lavish breakfast buffet in its Mesh restaurant. Citadines (from AUD 200 doubles, citadines.com.au) is in the heart of the CBD, and the rooms come equipped with kitchenettes.
>Great Ocean Road Lady Bay Resort (from AUD 175 doubles, ladybayresort.com.au) in Warrnambool is a friendly establishment, with rooms with ocean views and well-equipped kitchenettes. There’s also a spa on the premises.
>Yarra Valley Balgownie Estate Vineyard Resort and Spa (from AUD 195 doubles, balgownieestate.com.au) in Yarra Glen has large, luxurious suites overlooking acres of lush vegetation with groves of trees, ponds and in the distance, the vineyards. Chateau Yering (from AUD 395 doubles, chateauyering.com.au) in Yering is a historic house with elegant décor, complete with ancestor portraits, period furniture and comfortable chintzy armchairs around the fireplace.
>Phillip Island The Waves Apartments (from AUD 225 doubles, thewaves.com.au) in Cowes has comfortable rooms with kitchenettes, large picture windows and balconies overlooking Western Port Bay.
AUD 1= Rs 57
What to see & do
>Melbourne: To get a feel of the city, take the Hidden Secrets Lanes and Arcades Tour (hiddensecretstours.com), which begins at Federation Square in the heart of the city beside the Yarra River, and meanders through little lanes with trendy boutiques, cafes and eateries; Collins Street and Bourke Street with their department stores and malls and finally to the beautiful Royal Arcade and Block Arcade with more shops and restaurants. The Melbourne Star Observation Wheel (melbournestar.com) takes you high in the sky in enclosed glass cabins that offer spectacular views of the Melbourne skyline, Port Phillip Bay and the mountains of the Dandenong Range, 40 km away. The lively, atmospheric Queen Victoria Market (qvm.com.au) displays fresh farm produce, cheeses, handicrafts, clothes and a lot more. Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens (rbg.vic.gov.au), one the best in the world, offers acres of fabulous landscaping and an opportunity to see trees and plants unique to Australia. Get an eyeful of kangaroos, wallabies, kookaburras, koalas and other Aussie animals at Melbourne Zoo (zoo.org.au/melbourne). Melbourne Cricket Ground (mcg.org.au), mecca for cricket-lovers, offers conducted tours.
>Great Ocean Road: Stop at Bell’s Beach, a surfers’paradise, to see the waves of the Southern Ocean at their wildest; at Lorne and Apollo Bay with their restaurants and shops overlooking the beach; at Apostles, London Bridge and Loch Ard Gorge; in Port Campbell National Park to take in the dramatic rock pinnacles and sheer cliffs ; at the Whale Nursery at Logan’s Beach in Warrnambool.
>Yarra Valley: Visit Domaine Chandon (domainechandon.com.au), run by famous French champagne makers Moet et Chandon, for a tasting tour. This winery is famous for its sparkling wine, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The award-winning Rochford Winery (rochfordwines.com.au) also offers tasting tours, as well as a Segway tour of the vineyards. The Yarra Valley Chocolaterie (yvci.com. au), has high-quality handmade chocolates, with unusual flavours such as lavender, wattleseed and lemon myrtle. At Yarra Valley Dairy (yvd.com.au), you can taste superb farmhouse cheeses.
>Phillip Island: The Penguin Parade (penguins.org.au) at sunset, is unmissable. Nearby, at the Koala Conservation Centre, the elevated boardwalk lets you get up close with koalas perched high on gum trees. At Panny’s World of Chocolate (phillipislandchocolatefactory.com.au), admire the chocolate sculpture and waterfall, watch the confections being made, and taste them before buying at the well-stocked shop. You can also let rip in a Go Kart (phillipislandcircuit.com. au) or marvel at objects defying gravity, rooms flooding without getting wet and other physics-defying phenomenon at A Maze N Things (amazenthings.com.au).
Where to eat
>Melbourne The Atlantic (theatlantic.com.au) in the lively Crown Entertainment Complex has a fabulous oyster bar and fresh seafood; Coda (codarestaurant.com.au) is OzMod cuisine at its finest — try their Moreton Bay Bugs, which are not insects but deliciously succulent lobsters. The Colonial Tramcar Restaurant (tramrestaurant.com.au) is a vintage tram with plush period décor that takes you on a slo-mo tour of Melbourne while serving up a gourmet feast.
>Great Ocean Road The excellent restaurant at Lady Bay Resort (ladybayresort.com.au) in Warrnambool has impeccably fresh fish and locally made cider. Try the locally made washed rind cheddar served with date chutney. The Pavilion Café and Bar (pavilion.net.au) next door, overlooking the ocean, is open for breakfast and lunch and serves generous portions of gourmet fare. Try the excellent local beer called Prickly Moses; you’ll get it in any of the towns along the ocean road.
>Yarra Valley A roaring fire adds to the cosy ambience at the Rae Restaurant at Balgownie Estate. Here, as well as at the Rochford Winery Restaurant, the seafood and wines are renowned.
>Phillip Island Locally-sourced beef and lamb, the day’s catch of salmon, ocean trout, scallops and mussel, are among the irresistible dishes on the menu at Harry’s on the Esplanade (harrysrestaurant.com.au) at Cowes.