Road Trip to Canberra and Melbourne

When my good friend and old Chico State fraternity brother Rob Salisbury asked me to join him on a business trip to Canberra and Melbourne, I jumped on the opportunity. I had wanted to see both cities and just hadn’t made the time. Rob has been living and working in Oz for a few years now and recently married a lovely Australian gal named Sue. He now calls Sydney his home.

We jumped in Rob’s Land Rover Freelander and headed from his home in Brighton le Sands, just south of Central Sydney, towards Canberra, the nation’s capital. Getting out of Sydney is no easy task as there are few freeways or even major arteries that make it all the way into the city. To escape from Sydney, one must run a gauntlet of surface streets, roundabouts, signals and traffic jams for at least 30 minutes to an hour in every direction. The southern suburbs came to a rather abrupt end we found ourselves moving nicely along a beautiful four-lane freeway in countryside that could easily pass as the coastal hills of California.

Three hours later, we arrived in Canberra. Like the US, Australia’s Capital was a planned city, so has lots of green space, a lake, and wide boulevards and is situated more or less in a circular fashion with Capital Hill at the center of the hub.

Chicago architect Walter Burly Griffin, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, mapped out Canberra in the early 1900’s. The overall feel to me was a cross between Washington D.C. and Silicon Valley. It’s green, quiet and with a population of well under a million, very uncrowded. It felt a bit sterile to me, but the locals apparently enjoy a very good overall quality of life.

I had a nice cruise around town while Rob was in a meeting and stopped for a cleansing ale at one of the local pubs. After the meeting, Rob and I enjoyed the best Mexican dinner I’ve had on this side of the Pacific at a little café called Viva Zapata.

After dinner, we hit the road to Melbourne, some 650 kilometers south. We were making good time, so stopped to recharge our batteries for a couple hours at one of the many roadside rest stops. We arrived in Melbourne just before the morning rush hour, dropped our bags at a mate of Rob’s home, and headed to town to have a look around.

Rob and I spent the morning exploring Melbourne City and then headed out to Fitzroy, one of the more Bohemian neighborhoods for lunch and a stroll.

Rob had another meeting that evening, so I pulled an old contact and got myself a ride on Jeff Nixon’s Take Five, a 34’ sloop, for the Thursday night yacht race out of the Sandringham Yacht Club.

It was a nice easy race in flat, protected water of Port Phillip Bay in ten to fifteen knots of breeze. That is until we rounded the final windward mark. In a flash, the sky darkened and the wind revved up to 40 knots. Our boat speed went from six knots to eleven, with just white sails on flat water. The pulses of the crew saw about the same percentage increase. Take Five crossed the finish line in short order, and the crew struck the sails and put the boat away before the squall hit us with full force.

The Sandringham Yacht Club is quite a friendly venue and throws a good post-race party. With a nice clubhouse, cheap drinks, a tasty buffet dinner, live music and dancing, it is no wonder they usually get a good turnout for Thursday night racing. Like the Kiwis, the Aussies take their fun quite seriously.

On Friday I did a bit more exploring in Melbourne Central and South Yarra. Rob joined me between meetings. Melbourne has a much more of a cultural feel than Sydney. The architecture is more interesting and diverse and it definitely has a huge café society.

Strolling around on Friday evening, there were open-air cafes with live music in St. Kilda, sidewalks and outdoor cafes jammed on Fitzroy Street and a full on boulevard cruise scene on Chapel Road. There were literally hundreds of souped up old Holdens jamming the street, revving engines and inching along with chrome bits shining. Steroidal stereo systems booming inside cars with rolled down windows absolutely polluted the night air.

Rob had an early meeting on Saturday morning, after which we hopped in the Rover and drove south for an hour to the coastal town of Mornington. He is doing a bit of sponsorship work for Grant Wharington who invited us to join the crew of his 83-foot maxi sled Wild Thing for an afternoon race. You yachties may recall that Wild Thing took second place line honors in the recent Sydney to Hobart race.

Racing Wild Thing around the buoys is like driving a Formula One car to the corner grocery. By the time we got the spinnaker up and trimmed on the downwind leg, it was time to drop it again at the leeward mark. I mean this thing does 10 to 12 knots with just a main in pre-race maneuvers. On a beam reach, we effortlessly sailed at the wind speed of 15 knots.

Sunday’s weather was beautiful. We took in a bit of the annual St. Kilda Festival and enjoyed a lazy afternoon by the water.

First thing Monday, we hit the road again. It was 850 kilometers and eight hours of easy freeway driving to Sydney along the Great Dividing Range, through backwater towns with names like Wadonga, Wangaratta and Yass. There were at least a dozen dead kangaroos along the way, and as many McDonald’s. Although they do eat kangaroo meat here, I’m not suggesting there is a correlation.

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