Newcastle (NSW) - February 2008
The bus trip to Christchurch was long and tedious, leavened only by the kid throwing up next to me. At least she didn't throw up on me.The flight to Melbourne was, once again, ridiculously early - I had the taxi pick me up at 04:15. Hardly worth paying the hotel for the use of the room, once I'd wandered about to find dinner (Greek) and had a drink.
It was a fleeting visit to Melbourne: three hours later, I was boarding my $10 Tiger Air flight to Newcastle. It is an impressive city to fly into, what with the coastline north of Sydney (quite what we were doing out there, I have no clue), the rivers curving their way around Newcastle, its port and the way that Downtown Newcastle is on a narrow peninsular. To add to the general effect were the numerous areas of shallow flood and the general greenness of the place.(OMG, as I'm typing this, I'm playing something from the second record I ever bought, which I haven't heard for ages, not since my Radio Woodville days - I found The Best of the Motels on CD today, and "Total Control" is still doing it for me). Newcastle itself was not quite what I expected: yes, it had some great old buildings, some had been done up nicely but in between, there were lots of empty buildings, and lots of new buildings, which were not a patch on their older cousins. The main street has been turned into a Mall - I walked down it a number of times, at various times of the day, and it strikes me as a cold and forbidding place.
But overall, I liked my time in Newcastle. I got organised and went down to the Hawkesbury River by train, a place that has been in my imagination ever since The Oyster Farmer and The Secret River. Of course, trains are not the ideal mode of transport when it comes to rivers, so I only got to see a very small part of it. I went on a day long wine tour out in the lower Hunter Valley, which mysteriously turned into a beer tour when I noticed a micro-brewery. Since there were only three of us on the tour and we all enjoyed beer more than wine, the driver could be accommodating. It was a good day out, a good use of a wet day which might otherwise have confined me to the hostel.
Not that I would have minded terribly, as it is a very nice hostel - the common area, with its pool table and leather club chairs, makes me think it might have been a gentleman's club in its earlier life. I did some shopping, I explored the Newcastle library and art gallery, I found some good places to eat and drink coffee (on Darby Street), I read (Narayan), I saw some movies (I'm Not There and The Jane Austen Book Club) and I went to Maitland.
Maitland is more in line with my expectations of Newcastle - it has a "heritage" mall, lots of gracious old buildings and a general good feel to the place. I could have easily made this my base, had I not discovered it the day before I returned to Melbourne.
So I had a very nice Thai meal and caught the train back to Newcastle, then Tigered it back to Melbourne. There I just hung about for a few days, exploring a few more nooks and crannies, enjoying the place, staying at the North Melbourne YHA.
This trip has been marked by more interesting encounters with other people than is normally the case. First was the kid who didn't quite throw up on me. Then there was the couple in Newcastle airport (who had also found $10 fares so flew up just for the night): they gave me and another lost soul (the next bus was 90 minutes later) a ride into town.
In Maitland, I was walking past a pub, with its attendant group of smokers loitering outside, and heard what I am sure was a conversation about rats. One of the people said "there goes one now"; I had the uncomfortable sensation she was talking about me. I carry on walking, and then there's someone running after me - I look round in a fairly terrified fashion, and its some girl going "Happy Valentine", as she hands me a crumpled flower and a fag. When I say I don't smoke, she says "give it to someone you love" and is off, back to her group. Maybe they weren't talking about rats.
Then on a tram in Melbourne, there's this young guy, no shirt, fairly wasted, who gives me a big hug, quite prolonged really, all because I passed him his bag. But above all is Naomi: she came on the wine tour, so I had pretty much the whole day with her and her Welsh friend. Neither made much of an impression when they first got on the bus, but we'd stop and taste some wine and chat; then I found myself sureptitously looking at her as we drove and, despite knowing I'd never see her again, getting rather enchanted by her as the day progressed .