Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Wilderness: Toot-Toot!

I've just returned from one of the few passenger train journeys you can take in Tasmania, given that the Apple Isle hasn't had mainline passenger services for some decades.

Aptly, it's no mundane commuter run; instead it climbs and plunges through the dense, uninhabited rainforest in the green southwest of the state.

The West Coast Wilderness Railway is a reincarnation of the working railway which once ran from the remote mining town of Queenstown to the coastal port of Strahan, carrying minerals and passengers out of the wilderness.

Opened in 1897, it was a remarkable feat of engineering, cutting through previously impenetrable country using a type of cog railway known as a rack and pinion system.

The railway closed in 1963, with its track and numerous bridges slowly being conquered by the greenery and the fast-flowing King River. However, in another remarkable feat, it was reconstructed about a decade ago, reopening in 2002 as a tourist route.

But that's enough background from me; have a look over my shoulder as I show you some pics of my journey...

1. Queenstown Station; or really a replica of the original station, which suffered various misfortunes since it was closed in the 1960s (including being used as a supermarket).

2. A beautiful carriage interior, with lots of smooth timber and a central skylight.

3. The train at Lynchford Station, where we paused to have a go at gold panning.

4. Eureka! I struck luck with this tiny pellet of gold among the gravel and silt.

5. Up front in the premium carriage, the mood is upbeat...

6. The train at Rinadeena Saddle Station. Just beyond this bridge is an evocative little clearing, just grass where a small community once lived.

7. There are some spectacular views of the King River in the last half of the journey toward the coast.

8. This pic taken at Dubbil Barril Station (don't ask) reveals the cog track that helps the train up and down steep inclines.

9. One of the railway's 40 bridges seen from below, on the forest walk from Dubbil Barril.

10. And finally, a massive fungus growing on the side of a tree in the forest - a sign of just how damn wet it is here!

It's a great railway trip; relatively expensive, but with a surprising amount to see and do. The commentary is top-notch too. And like me, you can now while away hours wondering how the hell Dubbil Barril got that weird name...

Disclosure time... on this trip I was hosted by Tourism Tasmania.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Hobart Funny Ha-ha

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the west coast of Tasmania - I was waylaid by the annual Hobart Comedy Festival.

Well, not exactly waylaid. I'd written a preview article on the festival for Melbourne daily newspaper The Age, and was dropping in on its opening night on my way to Queenstown to try out the West Coast Wilderness Railway.

I was in the Tassie capital by 11am, so to kill time I walked around the dockside to Salamanca Place, and had a late breakfast at Plum.

I'm unreasonably biased toward this cafe in Salamanca Square because it shares PG Wodehouse's nickname, and my reverence for the creator of Jeeves and Wooster knows no bounds.

The fact that it also turns out an exceptionally good omelette with tomato, basil and goat's cheese folded neatly over a slice of impeccable toast is another reason I like the place.

Then I had a late lunch of beef ragout lasagne with festival director Craig Wellington (who I've known since he was a wee lad in 1985). I know what you're thinking: "Does he imagine that a trip to Hobart revolves around its food and drink?" Well, yes. Yes I do.

But there are other pleasures in life that make life worth living, and one of them is laughter. About 7pm I walked from my flash lodgings at the Henry Jones Art Hotel through the icy night air to the 1911 Hobart City Hall, main venue of the Hobart Comedy Festival.

The Hobart City Hall, by the way, shouldn't be confused with the Hobart Town Hall, which is a completely different building. The City Hall is actually a cavernous entertainment venue which often hosts live concerts.

I can't tell you much about the interior, as the Comedy Fest had done a brilliant job of obscuring it with cloth hanging both horizontally and vertically, creating the impression of a vast tent.

A new, lower stage had been set up in front of the venue's original stage, and a brilliant hanging star field set behind that. Around and back from the edge of the stage were tables and chars in a cabaret setting.

The Festival has been structured so that there are three nightly shows with multiple comedians each night. The first one on Saturday, Back to Base, featured Tassie-born comedians Hannah Gadsby and Justin Heazlewood aka The Bedroom Philosopher. This was followed by Planet Earth Presents with Montreal-based DeAnne Smith and Eleanor Tiernan from Ireland.

Then a mixed medley of comedians were showcased in the Festival Club, but at that point I needed to slip away and get some sleep in reparation for the west coast trek in a minibus the following day.

Some observations... it was great to see so many female comedians on the bill, when they're usually far outnumbered by males in such events; both Gadsby and the Bedroom Philosopher expertly skewered their respective home towns in northern Tassie (Smithton for Gadsby, Burnie for Heazlewood); an Irish accent makes anything a pleasure to listen to, even if it's quite rude; and you can never go wrong in knocking bogans (the first show's MC praised Tasmania for its potent-strength bogans, which outshone even those of his native Perth).

Most of all though, it was surprising how much material was about lesbian sex, a result of both Gadsby and Smith addressing the topic with enthusiasm. The mainstream audience may have been a little startled at first, but was then filled with the spirit of adventure and laughed copiously.

Which seems faintly remarkable, given that it hasn't been that many years since homosexuality was illegal in Tasmania. Or maybe not that remarkable, given the audience's good-natured response.

It's a great little festival for a great little city. Oh, and in case you were wondering... for dinner I had a Tasmanian venison pie and a Boag's beer from the festival bar, served with a cheeky little salsa (the pie, not the beer).

It was very good.

The Hobart Comedy Festival runs from 23 July to 1 August 2010; make bookings via Flight and accommodation packages are available via

Disclosure time... on this trip I was hosted by Tourism Tasmania (though I paid for all those tasty meals).

Friday, 23 July 2010

Elementary, My Dear London

This has been a marvellous year for Australians buying DVDs from the UK. With the Australian dollar hovering at the unusually high equivalent of 60 British pence, the temptation to buy TV series that aren't easy to obtain here has been overwhelming.

My best buy was the complete box set of the 1980s Sherlock Holmes TV series, which ran for several years and serialised about 40 of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original short stories and novels.

It starred Jeremy Brett in an exceptional and unique portrayal of the great detective, and was responsible for many viewers discovering the original stories in book form.

It's been great fun rewatching it. Which reminded me of how much fun I've had in London in years gone by, retracing Holmes' steps.

When Narrelle and I first travelled overseas together in 1990, we made a pilgrimage to Baker Street to visit the real-world manifestation of Holmes' home turf. There were lots of impressions from that visit which have stayed with me, including little signs of Holmes' lingering presence in the vicinity.

These included a street called Sherlock Mews, a shop called "Where's Watson?", and the Sherlock Holmes Hotel featuring Dr Watson's Bar. On what would have been be the site of Holmes' residence was a 1930s office building, Abbey House, bearing a plaque with the famous silhouette and a quote from the first Holmes story A Study in Scarlet.

More intriguingly, a blue plaque resembling London's historical markers was fixed above the Victorian-era building further along at 239 Baker Street. It was inscribed "221b, Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective". Note that it didn't make the fine distinction of calling him a fictional consulting detective.

In fact it belonged to a newly-opened Sherlock Holmes Museum at 239 Baker Street, now 20 years old and allowed to use the address 221b by special permission of the local council.

There were also Sherlock silhouettes woven into the tiles on the walls of Baker Street Underground station, and across town we had a drink at the Sherlock Holmes pub on Northumberland Street near Trafalgar Square.

The most Sherlockian fun we had, though, was in connection with the Sherlock Holmes Society of London. We attended a dinner with its eccentric and likeable members in an extravagantly Victorian building, at which we traded greetings with people bearing aliases such as that of the despicable snake-fancying Dr Grimesby Roylott of The Speckled Band.

The supreme highlight was when the two of us followed some of the London walks contained in a slim booklet the Society had published, outlining routes which took in elements of various Holmes stories (it still seems to offer it for sale, if this volume is the one I remember).

The best was the walk extracted from the story The Empty House, which marked Holmes' return from apparent death in his struggle with Professor Moriarty in Switzerland. Near the conclusion of this new adventure, Holmes led Watson on a complex journey through back streets, mews and alleyways to an empty house which turned out to face 221b.

As Watson puts it, "Our route was certainly a singular one. Holmes's knowledge of the byways of London was extraordinary, and on this occasion he passed rapidly and with an assured step through a network of mews and stables, the very existence of which I had never known."

The author of the walk had done himself proud, picking up the fragmentary description of the route which followed, in order to craft a fascinating passage through the modern-day London byways to Baker Street.

All of which underlines two things I've always thought about travel. Firstly, that it's immensely satisfying to focus on a personal interest rather than going for a "tick the boxes" approach to seeing a destination. And secondly, that the things you remember most fondly are the things you do by yourself, well away from tour groups and tourist traps.

But perhaps that conclusion is elementary.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Introducing... The Warburton Quarter

I've been back from Poland for two weeks, the jetlag has mostly gone, and I'm getting used to the icy winter we're having this year in Melbourne.

Winter aside, what I'm enjoying most is the coffee. Beautiful, delicious, flavoursome espresso coffee, mmmmmm.

The glow hasn't quite faded yet, after two months of drinking insipid filtered coffee and low-quality, badly-prepared espresso coffee in Central Europe (I hasten to point out that I love Central Europe - but not for its coffee).

The best thing about this fine Melbourne coffee is its proximity to where I live.

My apartment is on the corner of Elizabeth Street and Little Bourke Street in Melbourne's city centre, and I most frequent the section of Little Bourke which runs as far west as Warburton Lane.

It's a small area, comprising about 80 metres of Little Bourke Street and four alleyways leading off it at right angles: Somerset Place, Rankins Lane and Warburton Lane to the south; and Whitehart Lane and Warburton Alley to the north. This little zone doesn't have a name to itself, as in marketing terms it's part of the city's larger Hardware Precinct.

But I think it has a special identity all its own (at least in my head). So I've given it a title: The Warburton Quarter. Snappy, isn't it?

Let me take you on a quick tour of my favourite Warburton Quarter hangouts:


Brother Baba Budan, 359 Little Bourke Street
Fine, fine coffee in an always lively setting. I like to take the laptop down there occasionally, squeeze in around the communal table and work to the background social hum.

Brood Box, 8 Rankins Lane
This combined gallery and cafe is an atmospheric place to sip the morning coffee over The Age. I like to take Sydney media people here for coffee, to make them jealous.

Captains of Industry, 2 Somerset Place
Another fine cafe above the street in a big roomy space which also houses a tailor, cobbler and barber; the place exudes a kind of elegant masculinity. Fine hand-made sandwiches and a great view over Elizabeth Street and the General Post Office building through the big windows.

+39, 362 Little Bourke Street
 Great cafe which is also a restaurant. I eat breakfast here a lot - it's simple stuff like panini but expertly made. The sole e luna semi-calzone pizza is also great for lunch.

Bushwa & Hooey, 361 Little Bourke Street
I particularly like this cafe's homemade lunch options - the arancini are great, and nothing beats their giant sausage rolls teamed with the Greek salad.


Murmur, 17 Warburton Lane
Cool bar above the laneway, in a big roomy former warehouse space that still has the opening in the floor where gear was once hauled up by hand from the street. Good cocktails, comfy lounges.

Softbelly, 367 Little Bourke Street
This is more like your local pub - relaxed, friendly, social and with good bar food. It also hires out DVDs, which is handy as no-one else does so in the city centre.


Paddy Pallin, 360 Little Bourke Street
Cavernous place selling all manner of travel gear, tending toward the adventurous. I buy all sorts of stuff here for my travels - combination locks, power adaptors, combination fork/spoons etc.

Backpacking Light, 29 Somerset Place
Another good travel gear retailer; I bought my brilliant foldable plastic bowl here (I use it to eat muesli for dinner in hotels when I'm too tired to go out again).

Camera Action, 217 Elizabeth Street
On the Elizabeth Street corner, and where I get all my photographic equipment. Good service and knowledgeable sales people.

Crumpler, 355 Little Bourke Street
Sellers of very cool bags, including camera bags of various sizes and funky satchels. I bought the bag for my largest camera here; it's a tough but good-looking bag that's lasted for six years so far.


Sakura Lounge, 8 Warburton Lane
Classy little massage centre specialising in Asian-style treatments. I had a shiatsu massage here once that was damn good.

And those are just the places I use reasonably regularly within an 80 metre stretch of Little Bourke Street! There's also an Indian restaurant and a sushi place and a footwear shop and a travel agent and a classy homewares shop, among others within the zone.

The Warburton Quarter is a fun place to live (and drink).

Friday, 2 July 2010

Poland 5: Bite-Sized Lublin

I'm back home now, and the contrast between the long days of the Polish summer and the short days of the chilly Melbourne winter are freaking me out just a little.

But before I leave the subject behind, lets pay a visit to one of my favourite Polish cities, the somewhat overlooked Lublin in Poland's southeast.

As I wrote in Lonely Planet's Eastern Europe book, Lublin would make a nice substitute for the wildly popular Kraków when the latter city's tourist crowds are too much to cope with.

Like Kraków, Lublin has a beautiful Old Town, an impressive castle, and good drinking and dining; but it's not overwhelmed with visitors and the pace is slower.

So here's a snapshot of Lublin, created by gathering together all my postings to Twitter during my stay in the city (with a glimpse of a day trip to nearby Zamość)...

- Bloody hell! What looms above the skylight of my hotel room here in Lublin, Poland? And has it been fed?  2:43 PM Jun 21st

- Ah, the trolleybus... combines all the disadvantages of both bus and tram travel in a single ungainly vehicle.  5:36 PM Jun 21st

- With the A$ so strong, I should be saving cash... but here I am at the Grand Hotel Lublinianka (and it's only costing me $90 a night!).  5:53 PM Jun 21st

- Well that's a record - the iPhone's battery almost drained by 10:45am. Apple should be ashamed of its non-removable battery's poor life.  6:42 PM Jun 21st

- Just located Lublin's first modern backpacker hostel... nice. Always satisfying to add something good and new to the LP book.  8:33 PM Jun 21st

- In the basement of my hotel, the Lublinianka, is a classy sauna; but not in the Lubyanka, the KGB's ex-HQ. Important not to mix them up.  4:58 AM Jun 22nd

- The colour-coded Renaissance facades of Zamość; founded the same time as Shakespeare was writing his stuff.  7:12 PM Jun 22nd

- You know, you can have too much runny scrambled egg in your life. Hotel breakfasts more impressive in theory than reality, aren't they?  3:11 PM Jun 23rd

- Behold the Fiat Polski, the standard car of Poland's communist era. It's about the size of a matchbox.  4:20 PM Jun 23rd

- On the road (or rails) again... off to Przemyśl next. Nice day for it!  5:14 PM Jun 23rd