As dawn cracked through the clouds drifting across the southern hemisphere, the flight from London finally landed in Melbourne. That was several hours ago. A strange time of year for such a jaunt you might think, as downunder it’s pretty grey and drizzly, but I was lured to this side of the world to take part in the first edition of the Melbourne Festival of Travel Writing.
This is an ambitious attempt to turn the act of travel-writing into something worthy of audiences and serious thought. The Aussies have always been some of the best and certainly most experienced travellers, so it’s not surprising that they’ve dreamt up this two-day ‘festival’, much thanks to a local university lecturer. One of Melbourne’s biggest claims to fame in travel terms is its role as the ‘seat’ of Lonely Planet operations, with Tony Wheeler and his wife Maureen now long-term residents – when they’re not on the hop that is. On Sunday I’ll be hosting Wheeler’s talk about the Irrawaddy Delta and Burma. Meanwhile, here’s a pic from my hotel window in the heart of Melbourne’s CBD – an sharply modern cityscape echoing the well-oiled infrastructure.
And here’s old-time Melbourne – lest anyone forget it was Australia’s biggest city during the 1860s gold-rush. It still has some beautifully intact architecture, including a few art deco gems, though it lost the population race to Sydney long ago. Banks, clubs and old time restaurants seem to monopolise the best of the original buildings.
Tomorrow I introduce Viva La Revolucion! and my minor theory of gastro-communication to the Melbourne public. It’s pretty daunting as this city is one of the world’s great foodie capitals, with a long list of excellent restaurants and general foodiesophistication. What I can contribute is my knowledge of Mexico & of Mexican ingredients, but there’s a long pause before I enter the kitchen. Greg Malouf, the great Australo-Lebanese chef & food-writer, follows my talk with his own, together with his ex-wife and co-author, Lucy. I’m particularly keen to hear them speak & hopefully meet them too (postscript – I did, & much enjoyed them).
I wrote the above words nearly two weeks ago. Somehow I got caught up in a very downunder swing into action. Roaring across this vast continent I flew north to revel in the stirring emptiness of the Kimberleys (that’s the north-west), the Aboriginal (and Bradshaw) rock-art hidden in the bush, horse-riding in the glow of the early morning as temperatures begin to soar, listening to the cackling and screeching of native birds and being moved to silence by natural formations – deep red ochre gorges slicing into the coastline or the outcrops of Mt Cockburn.
Mt Cockburn is a severely underestimated natural icon. Uluru is the classic on the postcards, but the sprawling serrated mass of Cockburn (pronounced Co’burn), also of glowing red sandstone, is just as extraordinary. Here’s just one of its multiple outcrops –
And finally I found myself on the Tiwi islands, camping under the southern skies, almost white with stars, and listening to the rustle of bandicoots. When we arrived at our camping pitch, our Tiwi (Aboriginal) guide called out to the spirit of the lake – the Rainbow Serpent – and it certainly felt like we were taken under her (because it’s female) mythical wing. And then, culmination of my foodie interest in this part of the world, I ate some yuwurli, a long, translucent worm that lives in the mangroves. Somewhere between an oyster and jellyfish – tasting of the sea and very salty. To be continued….and here is that gastro-moment, captured for all…
An addendum on Melbourne, which I never finished earlier in this blog. On my last day there I introduced Viva la Revolucion! at Books for Cooks, an inspirational bookshop in Carlton specialising only in food books, with a good secondhand section too. What a fantastic emporium, and what inspiring owners, Tim White and his wife Amanda, an accomplished cook who prepared three of the recipes from my book for the gathering. Unfortunately I was too busy chatting to taste the wonders and then had to run to the airport – but it looked like they hit the spot. Surprisingly, gleaned from the 35 odd people attending this mini launch, it seems there are a few places in Melbourne to source Mexican products. So, yet again, what can I say but VIVA!