Friday, 29 March 2013

Laughs Ahoy: Melbourne Comedy Festival Log (Part 1)

For those who aren't familiar with it, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival is one of Australia's biggest cultural events.

Every April it takes over the central city, inhabiting dozens of performance spaces within the grand Melbourne Town Hall along with various theatres, pubs, bars and pop-up performance spaces.

I'm reviewing again for The Age this year - you can read my and my colleagues' reviews here - but I'll also be covering the festival more informally here on my blog.

The high plains of Sahara

So let's begin at Sahara, a restaurant and bar hidden high above the street, accessible only by a steep set of steps through a narrow doorway at ground level.

Sahara must be one of the older examples of Melbourne's famous "hidden" bars, more commonly found down alleyways. I used to meet up with a small freelance writers' support group here, years ago. In fact, I'd wager I haven't set foot in the place for at least five years.

In the old Sahara, the eating was pretty dull though the decor was cool. Now it's been taken over by people who really know how to prepare food, in this case with a North African flavour to match the venue's name.

I have an excellent Egyptian salad, complete with dukkah-coated egg, and my friend Julia gives a big thumbs-up to her dessert, a combination of Turkish delight and rosewater ice-cream.

Into the mouse hole

Then it's up more stairs to the second floor, which has only recently been turned into an impressive Arabian-themed bar with the geometric patterns of traditional art traced through the lampshades.

Aptly, given the great Middle Eastern history of mathematics ("algebra'' arrived in English from Arabic as a result), the show tonight is about computers. British comedian Dan Willis presents Control-Alt-Delete, drawing on his past life as a programmer.

He's a genial, likeable performer, raising laughs as he ranges across IT topics such as his first computer; the ridiculously good looking stars cast as programmers by Hollywood; the evolution of rude words created with keyboard symbols; Y2K and its inevitable return; and the classic film Weird Science.

Willis delves into computer history and programming from the 1970s that's obscure even to me, and I was a fairly nerdy teenager. Occasionally British references have to be explained, which slows the pace.

It's entertaining material, but I have the feeling the show will really fire when Willis finds his true audience. There's only one IT guy in the crowd tonight who he can bounce questions to. And, for some reason, there's a very non-techie 85 year old lady in the front row, who doesn't seem to be related to the performer and has made the long haul up the stairs specifically for this show. Go figure.

[Find details and buy tix for Control-Alt-Delete here]

Last-minute tuxedo

From here I bid farewell to Julia and walk westward toward Wills St, one of those obscure little side streets that run between La Trobe Street and the Queen Victoria Market.

The day before, rumours had swept Twitter that the Tuxedo Cat, a moveable venue which pops up for the festival, wouldn't be opening this year due to technical hitches.

But matters have been satisfactorily adjusted, it seems, as I arrive at the venue and walk into the vast ground floor of an otherwise vacant industrial building, into which are set a bar, tables, attractively weird decor (see above photo) and a ticket desk.

Narrelle joins me at the last minute for our 9.45pm show, Abigoliah Schamaun - Girl Going to Hell. But she needn't have rushed, as the show is running late, as are most other shows tonight. We sit around a picnic table with a couple of other critics, sipping drinks and idly examining the flyers scattered across the table.

From hell

Then suddenly we're on, up bare stairs through stripped-back rooms to the performance space, set with a small stage and the most uncomfortable chairs I've experienced in a long career of reviewing shows from uncomfortable chairs.

Luckily the American comedian has no trouble in drawing our attention away from the seating. It quickly becomes clear that Schamaun is at the far, far end of the "bad girl" spectrum of female comedians.

With her severe partly buzz-cut hair, she already catches the eye. Her material, though, is what marks her out as something unusual even among stand-up comedians.

With energy and exuberance and no discernible trace of modesty, she shares intimate details of her frankly interesting sex life, tattoos, awkward bodily functions and death. Other comedians talk about this stuff, of course, but she does it with an air of honesty and enthusiasm that's, er, infectious.

And then she sticks a needle right through her hand. And eats broken glass. Really. You couldn't make this stuff up.

[Find details and buy tix for Abigoliah Schamaun - Girl Going to Hell here]

So that was my first night of my 17th tryst with the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

You can continue to Part 2 of my Comedy Festival log by clicking here; and to Part 3 by clicking here.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

To Melbourne Airport the Cheap-Arse Way (2013 Update)

[NOTE: For the latest information, see my 2014 update to this blog post by clicking here]

A year ago, I uploaded this popular post explaining how to get to/from Melbourne Airport cheaply on regular public transport. 

In the ensuing 12 months, key elements have changed, including fare rises and the removal of the Metcard ticketing system. 

So here's an update on how to get to or from the airport and save a few dollars along the way...

The cost of getting to and from airports throughout the Western world can be outrageously expensive, and Melbourne is not immune to this problem.

However... there is a way of getting to and from Melbourne Airport cheaply, though various vested interests would much rather you didn't learn what I'm about to tell you.

So draw your chairs closer to the fire, lean in and discover how to save a tidy bit of cash.

For the cheap-arses among us, there is a much cheaper way into the city centre than the 20 minute $17 Skybus journey, though of course it takes longer (about 60 to 70 minutes, depending on connections).

This is how it works...

To Melbourne Airport

From any station in Melbourne's central business district, catch a train along the Craigieburn line and get out at Broadmeadows Station (timetable here).

Step straight out through the station building to the bus bay which is just to the right as you clear the building. Here you catch the 901 bus to Melbourne Airport, which leaves every 15 minutes from about 5am to midnight (timetable here).

The bus terminates at a regular suburban bus stop at the airport, located in an inconvenient spot about 500 metres south of the international terminal, on the charmingly named Service Road.

(Note that this stop is very near Terminal 4, so it's actually reasonably convenient if flying via Tiger Airways. Less so for Virgin flights and international, and a longish walk for Qantas and Jetstar services.)

From Melbourne Airport

You need a Myki smartcard to travel on Melbourne's public transport, and to get hold of one of these at the airport you have two choices.

Firstly, you can buy the Myki Visitor Pack from the Skybus ticket booths at the airport. Skybus is the premium every-ten-minutes airport bus which heads to the city for $17, so this seems a little like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank for our purposes.

However, you can get the pack from Skybus. The $14 purchase price includes the standard $6 purchase price for the card, plus $8 of travel credit on standard public transport (ie not Skybus itself). That's more than enough to get to the city centre then travel onwards to anywhere in the Melbourne metropolitan area.

Alternatively, you can buy the subtly different Myki Starter Pack from a driver on the 901 bus.

Either way, on leaving the airport terminals turn right and walk about 500 metres, all the way past the separate Terminal 4 where Tiger Airways flies from.

Here you catch the 901 bus to Frankston, which leaves every 15 minutes from about 5am to midnight (timetable here).

The bus driver can sell you a Myki Starter Pack for $10, which includes the $6 card purchase price and $4 credit. This is actually less than the fare to the city centre on weekdays, but Myki cards allow you to travel legally even when the card's balance dips into the negative, as long as you top it up before your next trip.

"Touch on" the card (as the jargon goes) on a Myki reader on board, and take a seat.

When the bus reaches Broadmeadows Station, touch off the card, get out and walk through the underpass to Platform 1, touching the card on again as you go. From here a train will take you straight to the city centre (timetable here).


The Myki fare between the airport and city centre in either direction is $5.92, which is automatically subtracted from the card balance when you touch off along the route.

Note that this $5.92 is a two-hour fare covering both of Melbourne's fare zones, so it has the advantage of being able to be used on all public transport for the duration of the two hours. Hence you could transfer to another train, bus or tram when you reach the city centre.

Even better, on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays the Myki fare is capped at only $3.50 for unlimited all-day travel across Melbourne, making the airport trip a steal.

Give me credit

The catch is that you must buy a Myki card for that non-refundable $6 purchase price; though of course you’ll be able to keep using it during your stay in Melbourne, and retain it for use on any future visits.

To top up the card's credit, the easiest way is to step into any of the million or so 7-Eleven outlets in the city centre and ask the guy behind the counter to do it.

If you're only sightseeing in the inner city, budget $7 per weekday (the capped daily fare for Zone 1) and $3.50 per weekend day or public holiday. If you like, the 7-Eleven staffer can even add a pass to the card covering all Zone 1 travel over seven days for $35.

Going a-Broady

Another good thing about the 901+train option, is that it gets you straight into the "being in Melbourne" vibe – you can eavesdrop on some pretty entertaining conversations on the train to/from Broady, which has a reputation for being one of Melbourne's tougher suburbs.

Don't let that put you off catching the train to/from Broadmeadows though, as it's a staffed station. Do exercise reasonable vigilance however, especially if travelling after dark.

Another catch is that the train+bus option isn't really suitable for people with large amounts of luggage; but if travelling with reasonably small and portable gear, go for it.

So happy flying - and enjoy the cheap ride to/from Melbourne Airport.

[NOTE: For the latest information, see my 2014 update to this blog post by clicking here]

Monday, 18 March 2013

Petra by Night

I first visited Petra 19 years ago, when Narrelle and I were living in Egypt and decided to take a holiday overland through Syria and Jordan.

Almost two decades on, much has changed in the region - Syria is deeply enmeshed in a tragic civil war, while Jordan seems to be more skilfully navigating the labyrinthine twists and turns of the Arab Spring.

Much is different in and around Petra too. The neighbouring town of Wadi Musa has ballooned since 1994, with many new hotels and businesses serving the travellers who flock to see the ancient city. The site also seems better managed, with well organised refreshment stalls and a good restaurant, the Basin.

Candle power

Another innovation is Petra by Night. Taking place after sunset, this event allows visitors to see part of the city in a literally different light.

After the usual closing time, The Siq - the long winding canyon which is the entrance to Petra - is lit only by candles, neatly spaced all the way along its length. At its end, walkers enter the large open space in front of the Treasury, the famous building carved from stone which featured in the third Indiana Jones film.

It's a brilliant concept, and there was a touch of magic about the experience as our group started walking along the path on our first evening at the site. The sky was clear, abundant with stars and a sharply-defined crescent moon. It was pleasantly cool with a dash of humidity, attractive walking weather.

Watch your footing

However, a couple of potential negatives became quickly evident.

Firstly, I found it hard to look up at the craggy beauty of the canyon walls or the stars above them, because the dimly lit surface was uneven enough that I had to constantly watch my footing. In the daylight it's no challenge at all, but by night I was wary of twisting an ankle.

Perhaps a partial solution to this issue would be to provide soft additional illumination of the canyon walls at strategic points. This would also highlight some of their interesting features, such as the distinctive wall carvings which appear along the route.

Talkative travellers

Secondly, humans were being, well, human and talking all the way down the Siq. Silence would have aided contemplation, but instead I was immersed within a sea of chat about itineraries and tonight's dinner and where you could get some washing done (truly!).

My Amsterdam-based colleague Shaney Hudson wrote about this issue a few weeks ago for Australia's Fairfax Media - you can read her article here.

To be honest, I didn't mind the chat so much. Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer begins with the line "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change"; and no-one assembling this many excited people in one place could realistically expect them to walk in silence. In its heyday, too, Petra would have been a noisy, bustling place, and an echo of this human messiness seemed not out of place.

Gaps and lights

However, because I was pausing occasionally to brace my camera and mini-tripod against the canyon wall in a doomed attempt to capture the scene, I unwittingly drifted toward the back of the line. Before I knew it, I suddenly experienced moments where I was the only person in sight along a stretch of canyon. That was pretty special.

Then I arrived at the Treasury and was plunged back into the masses who were seated on long stretches of matting, some standing and smoking at the back.

Between us and the Treasury was a magical scene: hundreds of candles within their crinkly containers, a sea of light below the ghostly outline of the facade which the Roman-era Nabateans carved out of the rock. This was seriously atmospheric.

Music in the dark

What followed was a short cultural performance. First an oud player struck up, barely visible. He was succeeded by a flute player, who moved toward us among the candles. After him was a vocal performer who spoke some stirring lines about the site. After this the event was over, and we walked back up the Siq.

Although the music was beautiful, the performance seemed too short and the vocal section too difficult to clearly hear. It would be good perhaps to see more components added, with a contextual link to the city's past.

Also, I think we were all half-expecting the Treasury to be illuminated at some point; to suddenly floodlight it at the end of the event, even for a moment, would make for an impressive climax.

The night before the day after

Having said all that, Petra by Night was a memorable experience. If taken before a daytime Petra visit it could act as a teaser, revealing a little of the site and sparking a desire to return during the day and see what lies beyond the Treasury's plaza.

Hopefully the concept will develop further over time, making it more of a must-see event.

Petra by Night costs 12 dinars ($16); for more information on Petra, see the Jordan Tourism Board's website.

Disclosure time... on this trip I was hosted by the Jordan Tourism Board.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Seen in Jordan

I'm in Jordan for five busy days as part of a media tour, and we've been taking in some of the country's most famous sights, including the magnificent ancient city of Petra and the calm beauty of the Dead Sea.

On our travels between these renowned places, however, I've been fascinated by the Jordanian landscape. Ranging from craggy mountains to gentle agricultural slopes dotted with stone, there's always been something austere but interesting to look at.

Here's the capital, Amman, viewed from the high point of the ancient Citadel. From here, the buildings ranged around the Roman-era amphitheatre look as if they've grown from the ground, part of some complex crystalline structure. It's not necessarily beautiful, but it is striking:

This is the view from Mount Nebo, from where the prophet Moses (Musa in Arabic) gained a glimpse of the promised land. The sign points out the direction of such Biblical favourites as Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Jericho:

I quite like this shot I took from the same vantage point, gives a sense of how dry and forbidding the landscape can be:

In this valley we saw our first Bedouin camp, set above the dry watercourse just in case of a flash flood:

Further on was this dramatic rock formation high above, known as Lot's Wife. You may recall the unfortunate incident in which she was transformed into a pillar of salt:

Far below us was the Dead Sea. I caught this shot as a colleague looked out over the water; it shows off the colours of the sea and surrounding coast beautifully:

Leaving the Feynan Ecolodge in Wadi Feynan, we happened upon this camel with a very young one in tow:

And finally, here are some of the dramatic rock formations in Wadi Rum, including two of the jeeps that were taking us through the baking hot desert to see them:

There was plenty more to see, of course, especially the amazing blend of the natural and manmade which is Petra (a subject for another day).

Jordan's landscapes at first pose a challenge to the photographer who's used to the greener vistas of Europe; but once the eye becomes accustomed to the arid environment, the country's visuals are endlessly varied and stimulating.

Disclosure time... on this trip I was hosted by the Jordan Tourism Board.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Melbourne on a White Night (Part 2)

Last post, I described the first part of our evening exploring Melbourne's first White Night festival. The adventure continues...

After we left the NGV we headed back across the Yarra River via Princes Bridge. This sturdy old thoroughfare was decorated with solid letters spelling out "WHITE NIGHT", being progressively decorated by artists as the night wore on:

The intersection of Swanston and Flinders Streets, though a vast expanse, was almost completely full of people listening to music played on a temporary stage. The musicians were performing "under the clocks" of Flinders Street Station, the time-honoured Melburnian meeting place, while the building's facade flickered with impressive illuminations:

Across the intersection we were surprised to find a relatively unpopulated space, the car park in front of the Chapter House next to St Paul's Cathedral. It was a brilliant place to pause, as the building was the screen for a dynamic series of animations which were tightly mapped to its facade. I shot a short sequence - check it out below:

The station and the Chapter House were the prelude to what the White Night organisers called Wonderland, "evoking memories of grand illuminations and re-imagined carnivals". The name was a fair call, as every single building on the north side of Flinders Street toward Russell Street had its own set of changing projections:

Best of all was the ornate 1920s Forum Theatre on the Russell Street corner. While waiting in a queue for a burger truck which closed for restocking when we were second from the front (sigh), I took these shots:

We ate pizzas at a cafe in Federation Square, and were impressed with how prompt the service was at 2am. That was something we noticed all night - officials running things and staff serving food and drink were friendly and efficient. It was impressive, given the stress that must have been caused by the unexpectedly large crowds.

Crossing the Flinders/Swanston intersection at 2.30am was much more difficult than it had been an hour or two earlier, because popular local band The Cat Empire was on stage by then. This was the only time I thought the crowds were a potential hazard, as the area was now packed tight with bodies and it wasn't hard to imagine someone getting trampled in a panic.

But we made it across, stood for a few minutes to take in the music (the acoustics were terrible), then decided to move on up Swanston Street. At City Square, there was an entertaining show involving both "interactive shadows" and the general public:

We finished watching the shadows, then realised we were very very tired and weren't going to make it to dawn. So we walked back to our apartment, the happy crowds thinning as we reached Elizabeth Street, and went to bed.

Melbourne's first White Night had been a great experience; I often found my thoughts wandering back to it over the next few days. There were obviously issues involving space and crowds which would have to be worked out for its next occurrence, but most people agreed it had been a huge success.

What made it special wasn't just the conjunction of unconventional art with an unconventional all-night timeslot. It was above all the vibe, the friendly, enthusiastic, joyous mood that coursed through the crowds all night. I've always found Melbourne an unusually positive city for whatever reason (there's a PhD waiting for someone on that topic), and here was that positivity again on display.

It was a great night. Can't wait for White Night 2014.

An official date for Melbourne's next White Night has yet to be set, but will likely be the final Saturday in February 2014. Check the White Night website closer to the date.