Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Post on December 23rd, 2004

Luna Park

So a good friend of mine in Minneapolis, who is happily married, makes an assload of money and is generally leading a pretty comfortable pseudo-slacker lifestyle when she isn’t working 60 hours a week, selling her soul to the Federal Reserve System, likes to live vicariously through my travels, social embarrassments and the overall train wreck that is hosteling as a lifestyle. Recently she did her bit to help by forwarding a blurb from Frommer's Budget Travel magazine (blatant oxymoron?) about Base Backpacker’s brand new, flashy hostel in Melbourne. Throughout the rest of Australia, Base Backpackers has a reputation for being packed with budget travelers who have resolved to give a 3:1 priority to boozing it up and casual sex over actual touring. But the reports on this new hostel were too good to be true. Here’s a cut and paste of the Base Backpacker blurb:

“‘It looks like a million dollars,’” says Graeme Warring, CEO of Base Backpackers. ‘It should. It cost 10!’ He's referring to what may be the fanciest hostel ever -- four stories, sheathed in red glass, with a two-story atrium, a 59-foot-long aquarium embedded in the floor, a bar called RedEye, and an Asian restaurant. It opened last May (2004) in St. Kilda, a beach suburb four miles from downtown Melbourne. There are 21 double rooms with Egyptian-cotton duvets, and 40 dormitory-style rooms, usually shared by six to eight beds, which have their own bathrooms.”

My deep-seated, unwavering journalistic integrity demanded that I check this out, no matter how much alcohol and sex was forced on me.

Base Backpackers new hostel

Atrium with floor aquarium

My Base introduction could have been better. After the punishing all-night ride on the Canberra-Melbourne bus, I was deposited in central Melbourne at 8:00AM on a Sunday morning short on sleep and patience. I optimistically called the hostel for a ride. After all, other than stupid Maggie’s Guest House out on Magnetic Island, all self-respecting hostels in Australia provide pick-ups from the transit centers, right? Oops, add Base Backpackers to the black list. Maybe they should have used the funds that went into that 59 foot floor aquarium and put it towards a van and a body to drive the thing. Aside from the obvious mental and physical discomforts of finding my own way to a hostel after a night bus ride, this turn of events was especially unpleasant as Base happens to be located in St. Kilda, a suburb of Melbourne, four miles south of the city center. Truthfully, I wasn’t too surprised about the van snub. When I booked a bed over the phone two days earlier, the Base clerk made some noises about a possible transportation scarcity at the crack of dawn on a Sunday, but said it might be possible. Come to find out that there doesn’t seem to be a Base courtesy van to/from town at any hour of any day. It was very disappointing. Though equally I noted how spoiled I had become after traveling in Australia for a month. Buses meet courtesy vans, tours pick you up at your hostel door, bookings and travel related inquiries are handled by hostel staff with a smile, etc. I hadn’t had anywhere near this level of service the previous year in Europe – there were times (all of France comes to mind) when it seemed that European hostel clerks actually went out of their way to not help travelers - yet I still managed to get by and there certainly weren’t going to be courtesy vans picking my sorry ass up in the Bangkok, Beijing or Ho Chi Mihn bus stations no matter what harrowing transportation nightmares I had just endured. In retrospect, I decided to chalk up the Base situation as a character building exercise for infinitely more demanding travel calamities in the near future.

Anyhoo, I didn’t have the wherewithal for that kind of objective thinking while I waited an eternity for a suburban tram out to St. Kilda which, predictably, did not run with acceptable regularity at 8:30 on a Sunday morning. Thus, I was less than cheery when I finally fell on the Base reception area 90 minutes later, but Base recovered surprisingly well. They quickly got me into a room, I showered and took a nap in one of the most comfortable hostel beds I have ever had the pleasure to collapse into and emerged three hours later a new man.

I had a slight tourist breakdown of sorts in Melbourne. After a month of racing down the east coast of Australia, through a half dozen beach towns, watching hundreds of young people lounging around, sunning themselves, getting drunker than hell and getting laid, I was experiencing dire irresponsibility-envy. This condition came on suddenly while I was reading the lengthy chapter about Melbourne in Lonely Planet. While the section was positively gushing with activities and things to do in Melbourne, not a single thing sounded more appealing than sitting on my ass, maybe evening out the unsightly farmer tan I had developed in Canberra and of course staying drunk on cider and cheap wine 15 hours a day. Long term travelers know that this attitude rears up now and again. Most smart people usually take this as a divine hint and they find a tranquil, lovely place to take a week-long break and recharge. Historically, I haven’t been that bright. For the most part, I ignored this urge last year in Europe, in favor of pushing on in the hopes of fulfilling a crazed, impossible itinerary that I had set for myself. Thus far, I had been in the same jam in Australia due to short-sighted planning. Well, pardon my Australian, but I was sick of that shit. Sure I had 2 and ½ days in a big city with a plethora of offerings to keep me more than occupied, running around dutifully touring, taking notes, complaining about odd, trifling details and generally staying on the responsible travel writer course, but I decided that I needed to shake things up and let off some steam. Melbourne would be my break. OK, so it was only 2 and ½ days, and knowing me, despite this declared rebellion, there would be plenty of walking around, checking things out and writing about it great length, but simultaneously, there would be liters of cider. There would be naps. There would be consecutive daylight hours where I didn’t walk more than 500 yards. There would be good-natured flirting. Particularly with the 6’-2”, blond, busty German girl sitting directly in front of me as I write this in an inconspicuous corner of the TV room (the only place in the numerous common areas of the Base hostel where there was an available electrical outlet). Yes sir, there would be irresponsibility, there would be dereliction of touring duties, there might even be a late night, ill-advised body piercing. It was time to make things interesting. Let the games begin!

Of course none of that happened. The German amazon was gone by the time I packed away my laptop. It was a Sunday night, so the hostel was more or less dead. Even quiet TV watching with a few ciders was out of the question, since a few English guys had settled themselves down for a cricket marathon. I retreated to my room, cradling a few Strongbows and popped “Shawn of the Dead” into my laptop, which turned out to be hilarious and undoubtedly a future cult film. I was responsibly asleep by midnight.

My intention to sleep late then next morning was hosed. What seemed like mere minutes after tolerating the bumping and crashing return and bed preparations by a few late drunken roommates, the early check-out guys started stirring. I gave up trying to sleep at about 8:30 and lingered over breakfast in front of yet another effing cricket match.

St Patrick's Cathedral

I relented further on my lazy objectives and decided that I would take the tram into central Melbourne for a short walk, using Lonely Planet’s walking guide. It wasn’t pretty. The person that wrote that walking guide has either never actually been to Melbourne or they should have updated their glasses prescription and ditched their penny compass before they plotted that course. Actual sights and directions were either misleading or fully opposite of what was detailed in the guide (nevermind east/west directions, even left/right was effed up once!). I managed to limp through most of the tour before throwing in the towel. Highlights included the Royal Arcade, not because it was overly scenic, but because there was a chocolate shop with a viewing window into the kitchen where we could watch and drool extravagantly while the bakers mixed up pans of chocolate in decorative molds. Despite being locked up, the view of the lobby of recently restored Regent Theatre was sufficiently fantastic to be appreciated through the full-length glass doors. I stood there for about 15 minutes, making a perfect face-shaped imprint on the glass, trying to take in all the colors, molding, filigree and glass ornamentation that draped the lobby. Finally, completely ignoring the directions in Lonely Planet, I was able to find and circle the picturesque grounds of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which was built in a remarkably well done Gothic Revival style.

More than any other place in Australia, you are truly taking your life into your hands when you cross the street in central Melbourne. In addition to the crossing complications created by left-sided driving, which has smote more than a few tourists, Melbourne has added an unpredictable wrinkle that if it doesn’t kill you, will at the very least require a change of underwear once a day. Due to Melbourne’s robust street-level tram system, which mainly runs right down the middle of most streets, they had to develop an adjusted protocol for people wanting to turn right across the tram lines and oncoming traffic. The dubious solution? Have the right-hand turners sit out in the middle of the intersection, in the far outside left lane and then, during the .08 seconds between the light turning from yellow to red, everyone burns rubber over four lanes of traffic, two tram lines and the odd pedestrian crossing full of dazed tourists to get out of the way before perpendicular traffic gets the green. It’s quite the sight, best seen from the safety of a tank, if you have the means. Truly, for an already discombobulated tourist, the ongoing potential for a car to barrel through the intersection, from an unlikely spot, at an inopportune time was acutely discomforting and made a convincing case for me to stick to the comparatively calm streets St. Kilda of for the rest of my stay in Melbourne.

National Gallery of Victoria

On my way back out to Base, I impulsively hopped off the tram at the National Gallery of Victoria to see an Edvard Munch (Norwegian painter) exhibit. I’ve always like Munch and with his most famous painting “The Scream” having just been stolen from an Oslo museum (again), I figured I had better take the chance to see his material before it all went missing. I was informed just inside the door that they were asking for an AU$15 entry fee. Short of a poster-sized, nude, full color photo essay on the passionate love affair between Salma Hayak and Jennifer Garner, I’m not paying $15 for any fricking art exhibit, Norwegian heritage be damned! I did a zero-radius ‘U’ turn, returned to the street and hopped back on the tram to St. Kilda.

Ultimately, being “Based” in St. Kilda turned out to be a huge perk. While central Melbourne wasn’t bad as far as crazy, hectic cities are concerned, the quaint, but busy scene in St. Kilda was much more enjoyable. Melbourne’s Luna Park is just a block away from Base Backpackers, which provides a nice, ancillary backdrop of weirdos and street vendors once admiring othe rickety rides loses its appeal. Across a busy street from Luna Park is Port Phillip Bay which offers wind-related water sports and a respectable beach to satisfy sun tanning needs. The four block stretch of Acland Street is an orgy of bustling shops, cafes, restaurants and weekend Yuppie watching. And most importantly, crossing the street in St. Kilda isn’t a daring test of nerves.

Parasailing in Port Phillip Bay

One nap and a cheap dinner later, I found myself in The Red Eye, Base’s bar, for the Monday night stand-up comedy show. Now, one doesn’t usually go into a Monday night, free comedy show at a suburban youth hostel with high expectations. I knew the show was bound to be a little rough. Being a fellow stage performer, I knew how tough a situation like this could be for the artists, so I decided to selflessly give the comics a fighting chance by consuming two glasses of red wine before the show. That’s just the kind of generous guy I am. The three supporting acts ranged from questionable to pretty good, the MC’s main laugh-getting tactic was to curse and talk about puke as much as possible, which was funnier than it sounds, and the headliner was absolutely riotous. By this point I was patently won over by Base Backpackers and took careful note of their four hostels in New Zealand, particularly the Auckland location that reportedly had a rooftop hot tub with a panoramic city view. They would be getting my business even if I had to walk through three suburbs to get there.

After the comedy show, I was lured to a nearby bar by a pack of WWOOFers (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) where an impressively talented live band was playing. By now, I was generally astonished with Melbourne’s offerings - let’s not forget that it was a only Monday night - and was sorry that I couldn’t have hung around for a weekend outing. The four piece band did a fantastic job on songs ranging from reggae, to rock, to country, to a brilliantly improvised song about dildos, suggested by a female audience member.

Although the WWOOFers were still raring to continue the bar crawl after the band wrapped up and bar closed down, the fact that I was already notably sleep deprived and needed to check out of my hostel in nine hours sent me home at a responsible hour. Curse these responsible leanings!

I submitted to 24 hours of homelessness for the second time in three days Tuesday morning. I had a plane ticket to Sydney for Wednesday morning for 6:00AM. Per stingy, budget traveler requirements and general logic, I decided not to rent a bed Tuesday night, as I would have to be at the airport the next morning at 4:30AM, which meant leaving the hostel at 3:30AM, which meant getting up at 3:00AM, etc. Additionally, the airport transportation options in St Kilda at 3:30AM are limited to a $25 cab ride which is unmitigated sacrilege in backpacker circles. I checked out, stored my bag and spent the day working and watching, what else?, cricket in Base’s TV room while keeping an eye out for the German amazon to see if she might be receptive to me climbing and crawling all over her shapely body (she never materialized) . After enjoying a Thai meal spicy enough to make my butt sweat and my eyes water, I was invited out for a game of basketball with the WWOOFers from the previous evening. Of course, the expected stink generated by two hours on a basketball court directly before spending the night in an airport was going to be unpleasant, but I had not played basketball in almost two years and I was dying to shoot some hoops. Obviously, after two years, I couldn’t even make a free throw, much less do any razzle-dazzle moves, but my new friends were equally as bad, so an awkward good time was had by all.

After consuming a delicious, post-game pizza dinner with the WWOOFers, I boarded the airport express bus and spent the rest of the night trying in vain to get some rest before check-in opened at 4:30AM. I arrived in Sydney in the expected sleep-deprived tizzy that I’ve grown accustomed to in the previous few weeks and proceeded immediately out to Hornsby where I started my four day, Christmas break with an eight hour, mid-day nap.


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