There is so much to do in and around the fantastic city of Melbourne that I wish we’d planned to spend longer there, rather than just the six days we had allotted for this special place (although I felt that about most places we visited!). We’d loved our time touring New Zealand with Charlie the Campervan but being on the go constantly and setting up at new campsites every 2/3 days was tiring. In Melbourne, we stayed with our lovely friends that we’d toured the North Island with, and being based in one place for a whole week with no requirements to set up our beds each night, traipse all our toiletries to the showers or use the campsite kitchen to cook our evening meals, was a bit of a luxury. We had a lot more time and energy for sightseeing and so ensued a week in which we packed in an inordinate amount of exploring. By the end of the week, we were all shattered, but we’d had a blast!
Here’s what we got up to in our six days, all of which we thoroughly enjoyed, although realistically, you’d be much better spreading it over two weeks:
Day One – Beach Time
This was our quietest day as we were keen to just spend some time with our friends (they moved out to Melbourne a year ago), so it involved a jaunt to a pretty local beach; lots of play for the kids and chatting for the adults; concluding with a delicious BBQ – seriously, the food out in Australia is to die for!
Day Two – Cricket, Sports and Beer – A Perfect Combination!
For my cricket obsessed husband and son, we couldn’t possibly miss out on a visit to the iconic MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground). Opting for a tour in a small group with a hugely knowledgeable retired AFL player with a fervour (bordering on the obsession) for everything AFL, cricket and the MCG (I think he’d have slept there if he had the chance), we spent a happy couple of hours exploring what felt like every inch of the grounds, both inside and out. MrJ, not particularly one for outward displays of emotion, nevertheless failed to hide his sheer glee at just being in this place and wandered around with a huge grin on his face the whole time.
It’s worth pointing out that in various places throughout Australia and New Zealand, we were taken on exceptional tours by retired volunteers all with a passion for their respective pastimes. For example, at Zealandia in Wellington, our tour was led by a retired teacher with a love of ornithology, and at the Australian National Maritime Museum, a retired sailor excitedly showed us around the HMAS Vampire. This sharing of in-depth knowledge from these senior experts with the younger generations is such an incredibly valuable learning opportunity and one from which the Beans benefitted greatly. It in fact mirrors a more traditional style of learning in which extended families living close to one another pass on their knowledge and skills from the older population to the children in the group.
But back to the “G” as it is affectionately termed. Although having the opportunity to walk alongside the hallowed grounds of the pitch was clearly special, I think Bean8 (who would love to be a cricketer when he grows up) was most fascinated by the backstage elements we were shown around. Highlights for him were the ice baths and massage tables; the mini lecture theatres where the coaches would discuss their strategies for the game; the drug testing area (that initiated a whole raft of questions!); the TV interview stage, in which he posed with a grumpy face as if he’d just experienced a bad match; the boards showing all the test centuries over the years; the practice nets; the portraits of famous cricketers adorning the walls and the TV reporter booths. MrJ on the other hand, loved the chance to sit in the special seats within the members area reserved for those individuals with over 50 years membership. Our tour guide animatedly explained that as one of these individuals, if the seats were fully taken and (God forbid) a younger member was sitting there, he was perfectly within his rights, to get them moved – something which he evidently enjoyed doing!
After this, it was time to refuel, so we headed into the city for a chance to ride on the fun trams (free within the central parts of the city) to an awesome brewery/restaurant recently discovered by our friend Jon – Stomping Ground in Collingwood, I’d highly recommend it. It was quite a trek but completely worth it, and as we ate fantastic food and drank even better ale, the kids happily played Sleeping Queens together (this was the favourite card game of the trip, if you haven’t got it already, I’d highly recommend it – simple but hours of fun).
Then, it was back to the MCG to explore the associated Sports Museum (we’d purchased a combination ticket). We only had a short time to spend here before closing time, but I’d recommend you give it at least half a day. It’s an excellent museum and although we stayed there until we were literally kicked out, we only had time for a quick look around (Bean8 was obsessed with the 3D hologram experience with Shane Warne reliving some of his favourite memories throughout his illustrious career – he watched it at least three times!) followed by some much enjoyed time in the interactive galleries in the basement. I’d highly recommend checking out this area. It was great fun trying the various sports – challenging each other to cycling races and archery competitions; testing our bowling expertise (apparently my 8-year-old is much better than me at this) and ball skills; and seeing how good our hand-eye coordination and reaction to speed was with the BATAK Pro machine (see the photo below).
Finally, it was time to leave the city and head home for a play in their pool and possibly a tiny bit more beer – it was, after all, a very hot day!
Day Three – Gold!
Bean8 has been slightly obsessed with Ballarat ever since it featured (albeit briefly) in a Sherlock Holmes story he’d read (I love his quirky little obsessions). Clearly then, given its proximity to Melbourne (1hr 40mins drive), exploring this interesting little place was high up on our list of things to do. Anything to do with mining and the discovery of gold is right up his street, so on a scorching hot day, we headed out to Sovereign Hill, a living history museum which brings back to life the story of the mid nineteenth century gold rush era in the Ballarat region. I have to say that this was one of the best museums we’ve visited, and you could easily have spent two days exploring all its nooks and crannies. Indeed, the standard ticket we purchased allowed entry for two consecutive days, but we had so many other things we wanted to see and do around Melbourne, we sadly didn’t have time for a second day here. However, I would recommend, if you have time, overnighting in Ballarat to allow more time to discover this fascinating place.
First up, we journeyed underground on a tour of the Red Hill Mine. We jumped into the pit lift and were plunged into the pitch blackness. It was amazing just how well adjusted to the dark our eyes became after some time underground, but initially we could see nothing whatsoever, so maybe not one for sensitive kids, but the Beans thought it was fantastic! As we explored the mine together, the guide talked us through the dangerous conditions of deep lead mining and a short animation told us the story of the discovery of the famous ‘Welcome’ Nugget, which, weighing around 69 kilograms, is still the second largest nugget of gold ever to be found! This amazing find has subsequently featured in many of the Beans’ imaginative play scenarios! To round off the fun tour, you hop on the mine train (imaging you’re one of the miners at the end of a long day) and trundle back to the pit lift to be hoisted back into the dazzling daylight once again.
From here, we headed to the smelting works and, in the process, learned the science of how they extracted the pure gold from the mined rock and got to witness the pouring of a beautiful (and enormous) gold ingot.
Next up, we wandered around the reconstructed town and into the various shops, pubs, restaurants and theatre, all with a variety of authentic products for sale by staff dressed in Victorian clothing (despite the sweltering heat). We listened, with mouths watering, to a demonstration of the traditional sweet making process, were shown how to dip candles (there were some beautiful ones for sale), watched the lathes been used in the foundry to expertly spin metal into gold pans and household wares; and had a go at skittles in a traditional bowling saloon! The Beans enjoyed the parade of the Redcoat Soldiers and the musket firing, followed by a demonstration of the amazing voltaic battery, which was lots of fun!
The Beans and MrJ rounded off the busy day with a relaxed hour panning for as many little flecks of gold as they could extract from the creek, whilst I took an opportunity to explore the shops and all the gift opportunities they presented, along with the bakery where I bought some traditional meat and fruit pastries (one half had a meat & vegetable filling, the other half was stuffed with apple) for our tea on the drive home.
There was so much more to see that we sadly didn’t have time for, such as posing for a photograph Victorian style; watching a blacksmith at work; various theatre events; coach rides; an opportunity to try Victorian school and much more. But we had a wonderful day nonetheless with so many engaging and memorable learning opportunities. Definitely a must do if you’re in the Melbourne area.
Day Four – Penguins & Surfing!
I didn’t feel we could come all this way and not see the beautiful little penguins who inhabit Philip Island, a two-hour drive from where we were staying in Hampton. Every sunset, hundreds of Little Penguins return ashore after a day’s fishing and wobble their way back to their nests, making this penguin parade one of Australia’s most popular attractions. However, I’m not a lover of crowds and I’d been told this was an incredibly overly commercialised event. Furthermore, as we were visiting in the summer, sunset was about 9:30pm, and with the two-hour drive home, possibly more like 2.5 hours given the number of people needing to leave at the same time, it would have made for a very late night. And the kids were already tired. So, we thought we’d scope it out first and headed down to the board walk at Point Grant on the western tip of the island.
As we wandered along the trail, marvelling at all the little penguin huts, we noticed a little one poking its head out. And as we got further along, we spotted a whole group of adorable little penguins hiding beneath the board walk right under our feet! All the way along, the Beans had a great time trying to catch a glimpse of these endearing creatures just peering out from their nests in the hillside or peeking out from behind a rock. The views from this exposed spot out over the sea were stunning and it made for a lovely hour’s walk. And now, having seen these cuties far closer than we would have done on the parade, we decided there was no need to stay for the evening session and instead headed off to explore the rest of the island.
There is so much to do on Philip Island, from beautiful beaches to a Chocolate Factory to a puzzling museum, you could easily spend a week just in this one location. But, for a long time Bean8 had been asking to try out surfing (he knows what he likes this boy), and so on the off chance we could arrange a lesson, we stopped off at Island Surfboards and Surf School near Smith’s beach. Luckily there was an instructor free and so all four of us along with an extra punter (a lovely Scot) went off for a two-hour surfing lesson with our fantastic instructor Lauren.
One of my favourite aspects of this trip together was that because of the children’s enthusiasm, I tried all sorts of new activities I never would have attempted otherwise. It wasn’t the warmest of days and I have Raynaud’s disease, so I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the prospect of spending a couple of hours in the cold sea. I nearly didn’t join them for their lesson, but Bean8’s eagerness persuaded me and I’m so glad, as I absolutely loved it!
The Beans listened judiciously as Lauren explained about the dangers of the rocks and rip tides before taking us down with our towering surfboards to have a try. On the beach, she showed us the careful sequence of movements required to move from a laying to standing position on the board and we all diligently copied her actions. And then for the sea with its awesome waves! She worked with the children initially to help steady the boards as they tried to rise on wobbly legs to ride the wave and within a few attempts they were both standing up and travelling along the wave to the shore!! I was a seriously proud mama and even more so, when after many attempts, I continued to fall off the board or get totally wiped out by a particularly ferocious wave! But finally, after a lot of help from Lauren, I managed to stand on the board and, with a smile on my face, rode happily towards the beach.
I never managed to stand without her help though, but the Beans achieved it time and time again. They were utterly focussed on their activity, repeating the required movements over and over until they were really quite proficient. I on the other hand, expended an awful lot of energy but was pretty useless! I was doing a much better job at drowning myself as wave after wave crashed into me as I waited for the perfect (and not too big) wave, dragging me under each time in the process. Unlike my children, I clearly don’t have a natural flair for surfing, but I loved it, nonetheless. And they were just buzzing after the lesson. I think it was one of Bean8’s favourite experiences of the whole trip.
Thanking Lauren for her help and apologising again for my own incompetence, we sadly left this lovely island and headed for a delicious Thai restaurant she’d recommended just on the other side of the bridge on the mainland. We’d definitely earned a slap-up meal after all that crashing around (fruitlessly in my case) in the sea!
Day Five – Three Museums in One Day!
Our next day in Melbourne was fairly chilly and rainy – a complete change from the previous day’s scorching hot weather. So, we opted to spend the day checking out some museums in the centre of Melbourne, travelling around using their free tram system.
First up, and an unconventional choice, we visited the Immigration Museum. We’d learned a lot in New Zealand about the first European settlers and their interactions with the native Maori people and were keen to explore Australian’s immigration history. It was a fascinating museum although probably not one for younger children. The Beans loved investigating the different routes to Australia from Europe over the years by land, water and air, noting how vastly the voyage time decreased with the advent of aviation.
We then explored the changing views and approaches to immigration throughout the 1800s and 1900s. I was shocked by the blatant racism in the immigration policies until only fairly recently. I was aware of the issues between the Aborigines and the incoming European settlers, but in addition to this, the Chinese, Africans, and really any non-white people were treated as second class citizens. Towards the end of the display, in more recent times, there were signs of apology for this behaviour and in its place a more multicultural and egalitarian approach, with steps taken to try and right some of the wrongs of the past.
Next up, the Beans spent some time with an interactive video display, where they acted as part of a governing body, interviewing prospective immigrants and making a decision, based on Australia’s policies at the time, as to whether they should be allowed to set up home in this country. They thoroughly enjoyed this – it was a good and memorable way for them to learn about the historical prevailing attitudes in Australia during these periods. Finally, they had a go at the dictation test, which we all found exceedingly difficult, even with English as our first language!
And then it was time to head on out to Federation Square for our picnic lunch via a quick look at the graffiti art on Hosier Street; and luckily for us the sun had reappeared. Afterwards, as we were so close to the National Gallery Victoria, we popped in to see the floors of Aboriginal art. Bean8 did an Australian study before our trip and loved trying out the traditional Aboriginal dot art, so it was great for him to be able to see so many original and fascinating pieces.
For the afternoon, we travelled to the Melbourne Museum and opted for one of the free tours around the highlights of each exhibition. It was an interesting tour, touching on the history of Australia; the Aboriginal cultures and languages; the flora and fauna of Australia; and its geology. The highlight for all of us was seeing the fossilised dinosaur scales on display – a rare but interesting find. To finish off our day, MrJ and Bean8 checked out the bug display, including some live specimens of orb weaver spiders (not in a cage!), whilst Bean9 spent a long time in the marine creatures’ section, reading every possible information board on display, so obsessed is she by this topic (a marine biologist is her back up career just in case the writing and acting careers don’t work out!).
Lastly on our whirlwind tour of the city, we met up with our friend Jon after work, who took us to see an information centre about the train project he’s working on, showing the kids how the boring machines worked to clear the tunnels (Bean8 was particularly interested as he’d love to be an engineer when he’s older), and we concluded our day with a few ales and yet another tasty meal.
Day Six – Koalas, Duck-Billed Platypuses and Holding a Python!
I’m not going to lie, by day six, we were starting to flag somewhat, but we were all keen to see some Australian animals and so decided on a trip to Healesville Sanctuary, purportedly one of the best. And indeed, it was. Here, after a 1.5-hour drive, we opted for a guided tour with two close-up animal encounters – one with a koala and the other with a python. Bean9 was less than excited about the latter but we thought we’d give it a go. This turned out to be an excellent way to see the park and for the Beans, like having a personalised biology lesson about the Australian fauna from an extremely knowledgeable teacher. We started with them hand feeding the cassowaries and then went into the cage of a cuddly little koala. The kids examined the koala at close quarters whilst our guide talked them through a whole gamut of interesting facts about this loveable creature.
After sadly dragging ourselves away from the cuddly ball of fluff, we ambled around the rest of the park with our guide peppering us with all sorts of new information about the weird and wonderful animals from the duck-billed platypuses (much smaller than I’d realised) with their poisonous spurs on the back of their ankles to the spiny echidnas (one of only five species of monotreme in the world) to the mighty dingo. Recently, now back in the UK, the Beans did a presentation to a group of people from our church on what they’d learned throughout their trip, and I realised they’d remembered a huge amount of information from this guided tour. Just shows you the impact of these hands-on learning experiences.
Then it was on to the python! A 1.5-metre long carpet python (fully fed I might add!). I have many many fears (as the kids say: “mummy’s worried about everything!” – comes with the territory I think), but oddly holding a python, which was not hungry and therefore not going to kill me, was not one of them. The kids were quite fearful though, so I offered to hold it first. Almost immediately, Bean8 was keen to get involved and held him on his own. He was fascinated by the feel of the movement of the snake, but I don’t think he was too keen on its head getting too close to his face! Bean9 was next to the table, holding the snake with her brother. It was actually MrJ, my adrenaline junkie, who’s never scared of anything, who was the least keen to hold on (he has a healthy respect for their ability to reticulate around his neck!), but he did so, nonetheless to pose for our family photo! It was a great experience, and again we all learned a heap about these slippery creatures.
As part of the tour, we were allotted special seats in the amazing Spirits of the Sky bird show. This was truly spectacular as they showed off some of the most colourful, impressive and clever birds I’ve ever seen, at the same time imparting a plethora of facts about them.
For the last part of our day, we strolled around the rest of the park, checking out the remainder of awesome beasts. I had a slightly hairy moment whilst waiting to go into a portaloo. A lady came out of the toilet I’d been waiting for and spotting what looked to me like an enormous hairy, tarantula-looking spider. She exclaimed and one of the staff came over and said, “Oh yeah, that’s just a little huntsman, he’s alright.” Ahem, yes, I’m sure he’s OK but I’m definitely not going to be sharing a tiny little cramped space with him, so I just think I’ll change queues thank you very much! Clearly given the breadth of animals that can kill you in this country, the sight of one that just gives you a bite with “localised swelling and pain, and occasionally nausea, vomiting, and heart palpitations” is something to be totally relaxed about!!
This concluded our trip to Melbourne – we’d had a brilliant time but now it was time to travel up with our friends to the tropics, to our rented villa in Port Douglas. The jumping off point to the Great Barrier Reef, but also the home of hundreds of deadly animals, with 3m long saltwater crocs (salties) lurking in the shallows and box jellyfish just off the shore. The huntsman, against this backdrop, would seem like a cuddly pet!
I have a slight tendency to feel a tiny bit guilty about taking all that time out of “traditional academic work” – 15 weeks in total if you count the preparation and recovery time before and after our trip. But writing this up, makes me appreciate the sheer amount and variety of learning opportunities presented to us throughout our travels. Not one of which felt like work. In just one week in Melbourne, we covered sports history; Australian flora & fauna; the gold mining era; Aboriginal art; the peculiarities of Australian immigration; a surfing lesson; and a chance to sample the culinary delights of this country. And we had so much fun in the process. A pretty good week of school I’d say!