I landed in Australia to a Prisoner’s Welcome, being hounded by the immigration people at Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne, mostly because I am Indian and hadn’t shaved, and written down just ‘Melbourne’ under ‘Address in Australia’ (all of these reasons are conjecture). I was asked a series of questions that ranged from normal “What are you doing in Australia?” to weird “Why did you go to Malaysia and Thailand?” to just too inquisitive, “How did you pay for your ticket?”. Anyway, I neatly answered the questions without acting too nervous or annoyed, and left the airport and met my Aunt (my Dad’s sister) Rosita in the airport. Soon, her husband (my Uncle Jude) picked us up, and we departed the airport and started our one-hour drive back to their house.
I hadn’t seen my Aunt in 16 years. I hadn’t seen her son (my cousin) Gavan in the same time. I had seen Lisa, my other cousin, a couple years ago when she visited the US. But overall, this was kind of a reunion a long time coming. Because of Skype, I at least knew what they all looked and sounded like, but it was strange to even be near all of them at once, instead of a 15 hour flight away. I was quite tired by the time I reached their house, what with getting all of seven hours of sleep over the preceding 48 hours (the after effects of watching Les Miserables instead of sleeping didn’t make me miserably tired until today). Of course, as this was a holiday in Australia, the whole family was at home, making me feel a little more embarrassed to retire to a quick nap instead of stay up.
I got up a few hours later, in time to have lunch (my first home cooked meal in a while), and watch the Anzac Day tradition: Essendon take on Colingwood in a footy match. I am almost positive that that will be the most Australian sentence I will write in my time in Australia. I had a brief encounter with Australian Rules Football one night at 3AM on ESPN2. I had little idea what it was I was watching. I considered it something like rugby, but after watching Essendon take on Colingwood, I realized that Aussie Rules Football (or Footy, which is what they call it) shares little resemblance to rugby, and therefore even less to the NFL. What I grew to realize through my time watching this weird game was it really is most like soccer, as the goal is to kick the footy (the lower-case refers to the ball) through two football-style uprights (although it can be kicked on the ground), and to get it in that position, it either has to be bumped or kicked between players. The position and buildup of play is very much like soccer, but the rapturous hitting and tackling during play isn’t.
Footy doesn’t have the coordinated, exacting brilliance of the NFL, nor the elements, the hitting, and the strategy (at least for a newcomer, my cousin who loves Footy to about the same scary level I love Football seems to be pretty aware of some strategy going on). However, what it does have is the non-stop action that makes soccer so beautiful. I’ll honestly say that if I was given the option of following both in the US seven years ago, I’m not sure what I would have picked. I probably still would have gone with Football, but I can probably safely say that Footy would be my #2 sport would it have been played in the US.
This particular game is an Anzac Day tradition. Anzac Day is essentially the Australian version of Memorial Day, however the country seems to truly take it as a reason to remember those lost in battle, instead of using it as a proxy for the beginning of summer. The day in Australia starts with memorial services across the country at dawn, followed by a march and some daytime drinking (as everything in Australia should, in my mind), and comes to its best conclusion with a Footy match featuring Essendon (which happens to be the club my cousins ardently support) and Colingwood. These two always play the Anzac Day game, this year in front of 90,000+ at the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground). Colingwood was the favorite, and for most of the game, they seemed to at least have a better flow to their game. There are two ways to advance the ball, as I mentioned. The first is to bump it to another player, but that player can be then tackled in hopes of the other team ending up with the ball. However, if it is kicked and the player catches it on the fly, they can pause, and get a free kick to advance or shoot the footy, known as a ‘mark’. Colingwood always seemed to have players in the right positions for marks, and generally seemed better prepared, but their shooting (or kicking) was awful, many times missing the central goal (6 points) for one of the side goals (1 point), keeping Essendon close.
Then, in the final quarter, Essendon, maybe after a plan of conservation, started flying around the pitch, easily controlling the quarter, ending the game on a ridiculous run to win going away. I think that some of my enjoyment of the game was the fact that the team that my household supported won the game. They were underdogs, so winning by that margin was surprising, but even them being close kept my cousins entranced in the game, and because of that, me as well. By the end, I was ready for more. I got my wish a night later, as I witnessed a cracker of a game.
Before that, I did my first bit of sightseeing in Australia. Because I am coming back to Melbourne for a full working week where my cousins and Aunt and Uncle won’t have as much free-time, I saved my days to roam around Melbourne for then, and we did the more lengthy trips for now. For my first full day in Australia, we decided to do the site that is furthest afield: driving the Great Ocean Road. The Great Ocean Road is actually an extremely long stretch of road along the Southern Coast of Victoria (the state that houses Melbourne), that stretches for hours and hours. We decided to go about two hours away from Melbourne, to stop at Lorne, a seaside town about an hour into the road. We chose this town for two reasons; first, because it served as a natural turn-around point for a half-day trip down the road, and second, because it served kangaroo meat.
The road to Lorne was paved with beautiful views of the vast Melbourne farmland, and then the beautiful Australian Coast. In many ways, it was reminiscent of South African. Part of this was also the weather. After struggling through over 50 days of oppressive heat and humidity (I’m pretty sure I had at least 40 days with a temperature over 30 celsius), I was back in livable temperature. The forecast for my four days in Melbourne was 20-22-25-20. Basically, between 65-75, with little to no rain. Now, this wasn’t as perfect as Cape Town, considering that was the dead of summer on the Western Cape, but this was about as perfect as I could ask for. Finally, after weeks of hiding my head in shame for being the sweatiest man in the room, I could hold my head high as the least cold man in the room.
We reached Lorne around 1:15, after leaving Melbourne around 11:00 (which was an hour after our planned departure, which is what happens when you have sleep deprived people trying to wake up on time). Lorne is really a beautiful little town at the base of a cliff on the Coast. It has the usual tourist traps with shopping even more expensive than the already expensive prices in Australia, but also has some great eating options with open-air seating overlooking the Southern Ocean (a new Ocean!). We ate at the Lorne Hotel restaurant, a place where my family in Australia took another cousin of ours, Ian, when he came to Melbourne last year, and a place that they assured me served Kangaroo meat.
I really had no idea that Kangaroos were used as food in Australia. I also had less idea of how Kangaroos taste. There isn’t really any animal I could compare it to that I had tasted because there really aren’t many animals like Kangaroo (I can’t say that I’ve tasted Wallaby, or Wombat). Thankfully, it was really good. It was maybe a smidge better than the Kudu I had in South Africa (boy, wasn’t it fun to have strange game meat again). It didn’t reach the ridiculous heights of the Crocodile Ribs, but it was pretty close. Kangaroo meat was really succulent, not at all like the tough game meat we are used to in the US.
After lunch, we took a walk back to the car along the Lorne beach, where I witnessed my first group of people surfing. I have no idea how anyone can surf. I’m not saying this about their psyche, but just pure geometry and physics, and I have no idea how It works. Anyway, it was quite a sight to see people actually successfully surf. We then headed back to the city. Instead of just seeing the same stuff from the other angle, Gavan drove us back in a slightly different way, going by the Port of Melbourne (to the Southeast of the city), by some nice houses and beautiful views of Melbourne from afar. Finally, he drove us by the houses of Ricky Ponting and Shane Warne, two of Australia’s most famous cricketers (or in Warne’s case, former cricketer). I was a little amazed that these houses were so easily accessible, but Gavan told me that in Australia, there aren’t any gated communities, that star atheletes live in normal areas, and from what I saw of their big, large houses planted right in the middle of the rest of the normal people of Brighton, a posh suburb of Melbourne.
Soon, we were back in the house after a long day, just in time to watch Port Adelaide play Fremantle in Friday Night Footy. These were two of the few teams in the AFL (Australian Footy League, I’m assuming) that aren’t located in Victoria, with Fremantle being near Perth out West, and Adelaide being near Adelaide. It was a far lower scoring game than Colingwood and Essendon, but a more captivating one. Port Adelaide is apparently a team predicted to be awful, but somehow 4-0. Fremantle is supposed to be decent. The game was a bit sloppy, but late in the match, Adelaide led by three or four with about two minutes to go, when Fremantle scored a great goal to take the lead. Then, with about a minute left, a loose ball was deftly scooped up and pounded through the goal by Port Adelaide to take the lead right back. And finally, with the clock expiring, a desperation kick by Fremantle was batted towards the goal, bouncing with a free patch of grass ahead, but slowed down and stopped about 10 meters away from goal (and a Freemantle win). It was everything the sport is supposed to be and everything I want sport to be. Footy probably shouldn’t define my time in Australia, but heck, this is a sports blog. Footy is awesome.