We land in Melbourne after a 4-hour flight, a bit tired but happy to be at last in this country we have been dreaming so much about. We were very lucky, in Christchurch, the lady at the check-in seemed to forget to charge us for the extra luggage! But, as if to balance things, we have some trouble when we land. We haven’t even got out of the plane that we see our bags being unloaded and … one has been opened! Ben recognises it, it’s the one with the fuel bottle. He cleaned it but the customs took it. Worse, Ben will believe for two hours that they have also taken the pump (expensive item). We check at home, they left it, phew!
Then, Sylvie gets a slap on the wrist for not having filled in properly her form for the visa, she only puts her first name (instead of the four she has). Luckily, she gets away with it. And then, it’s Ben’s turn: one page in his passport is falling apart, he will have to ask for a new one. He is annoyed, it means procedures with the Belgian embassy etc etc. Sylvie tries to calm him down but she is quite upset too. The customs officer has just stamped a blank page of her passport (even though she asked her not to) and she hasn’t got many left for the future visas. Last but not least, we go through the checks regarding the food and the tent but the officer is friendly. So, we are feeling quite stressed when we finally step out of the airport. Luckily, Robin has come to pick us up and his warm smile makes us feel better very quickly. He is a friend (and former colleague) who we haven’t seen for many years (since he left London). It’s a miracle, we manage to fit our two bikes, eight panniers and ourselves in his old station wagon Mercedes. At home, we meet his two daughters, Thea (13) and Shanon (10). Irene, his wife, is unfortunately away, staying with her family.
We have a very relaxing time discovering the huge market of Melbourne, the ice-cream shop just round the corner (yoghurt and almond mmm), Jake, the little boy who lives next door… Ben unpacks and re-fits the bikes assisted by Shanon and Diva (a friend of the girls) who are jumping in excitement. Ben already knows he will have four or five people to push on the bikes but they all love it! Robin goes around the block ten times before regretfully handing us over the bike!
We also meet up with Jo who we met four years ago in India, when we were backpacking around Asia. She takes us around Melbourne, we discover a very busy centre, a lovely old Italian café and an unusual restaurant: you pay what you think the meal is worth! That shakes our values system a bit. We spend a day running around trying to get advice for Sylvie. One of her teeth is subject to internal resorption. At the end of the day, we get the verdict: it has to be extracted! Something to look forward to when we come back fro Tasmania…
We say goodbye to Robin and the girls (who are already asking when we are coming back!) and cycle to the ferry. A big red boat faces us, the Spirit of Tasmania. If we were afraid to get on the sea, its size is enough to comfort us! The sailors are very kind and suggest we tie our bikes near the stairs: ‘The trucks are too big for you!’. Cool! We have a good time on the boat: Ben watches three movies (thank you Amanda and Olivier!) while Sylvie discovers the Australian papers and nibbles on the delicious homemade Anzac biscuits Jo gave us.
We arrive at 7am the next morning feeling sleepy (a lot of snoring!). Two poached eggs and a few toasts later, we are on our bikes after a two-month break. The sky is grey and we get a few showers but we are so happy to be cycling again! Our road trip in New Zealand showed us we were definitely cyclists. We can already hear you: ‘But a car is comfortable, warm, dry, you see more things…’. Wrong, you actually see more on a bike. Maybe a few less temples or palaces but we get to see the colour of the flowers on the side of the road. We get the smells after the rain, the songs of the birds, the smiles and chats with people on the way. There is also the satisfaction of the physical effort … pasta seems like a king’s meal on those evenings. And to top it all, the cosy sensation of snuggling into our sleeping bags! And we are not the only ones, the Jolivot family said they were really happy to get back on their bikes after two weeks in a campervan. We get to Wynyard at the end of the afternoon: ‘100… 80… 61… 35… it’s here!’. A beautiful old white house opens its doors to two delighted cyclists. Or rather, Keith and Wendy open us their door! They are Kate’s parents, a friend from London. They have been living here all their life and are now happily retired. It’s actually the first time we are feeling jealous of retired people! They seem to have so much fun! They took on cycling a few years ago and now cycle regularly with a group of friends. Keith also swims and rows, he has his own rowing boat in the garage.
Keith takes us for a drive/walk around town and on Table Cape, a cliff from where we get a great view of the city and the coast. We spend a great evening with them in front of a delicious dinner cooked by Wendy.
The next morning, we are up early, very early! We are driving down to the West coast for a cruise on the Gordon river and a walk on Sarah Island. And we have a big surprise: a trip on the Roaring Forties! The dream of every sailor (what do you mean, no?). A convict colony was established in 1822 on Sarah Island for the worst criminals … which, at that time, meant being repetitively late for work, often drunk … we’d rather not think of what happened to the real criminals! Living conditions were a nightmare: bad food, scurvy, diseases of all sorts, punishments… So the prisoners came up with a dreadful idea: the murder-suicidal pact. It was agreed between two prisoners. One of them would kill the other, preferably with a lot of witnesses. The murderer was then brought to court in Hobart and given a death sentence. That way, both of them would escape the colony. They had come up with this idea because a suicide wouldn’t have allowed them to be buried by the Church. Sad…
Before taking a walk on the island, we go through Hell’s Gate (whatever side you would look at, at sea or on the island, it would be hell for the convicts). The captain says they can only go outside sixty days a year … that’s how bad the sea can be. The entrance of the river is blocked most of the way by a sandy bar. The swell comes breaking on it with big white waves. A small pass between the rocks lets the boats outside. Once on the sea, our heart flies up! The boat rises up on the swell, then down again, then up again … woohhhoooo! And that’s when the weather is good? Wow!
There are only a few remnants from the colony. A few walls are the legacy of a strange experiment: if we lock people up in the dark, surely they should get out calmer? Well, no … they just become insane. Following this crazy experiment, the government had to build an asylum in Port Arthur! Someone then had a better idea: keep the prisoners busy and teach them a craft so they reintegrate better once they get out. In the last few years of the colony (until 1833, when the camp closed), the convicts learnt to build boats. It was such a success that everyone was trying to get to Sarah Island instead of any other colony. Seeing this, the government responded by closing the colony. Convicts are made to be punished, not rehabilitated! Meanwhile a few convicts managed to steal a boat and steer it to Chile … hats off! We cheer our spirits up with a great buffet and a few cups of coffee. Keith is happy to have found another coffee addict… ‘Come on Ben, another cup?’. On the way back, they offer us to stay with them a few more days and come with them on their cycling ride. They also offer to take us by car to the east to make up for the ‘lost’ time (we have a fixed date for the ferry). We happily accept, we are having such a great time with them!
The next day, while Sylvie updates the blog (all those pictures!), Ben and Keith check that the bikes fit on the roof. Seeing our bikes on the roof of a car is a bit worrying but Keith understands and he opens at least ten times the roof while he is driving so Ben can check! The recumbents are the main attraction of the camp site and, without surprise, all those who try get on it easily (even though they said they wouldn’t be able to!). It’s always the same with the cyclists! And to think it took us 20 min to get the hang of it. We have a great evening at the pub with Keith, Wendy and their friends.
We try to ride with the experienced cyclists but we are left behind. That’s the result of no exercise for two months! And also Sylvie doesn’t want to go too hard on her ankles. We finish at a quieter pace with Wendy and the rest of the group. We have time to chat, cycle up a hill to admire the view on Stanley village and picnic while waiting for Keith. When we get back, Wendy shows us her vegetable plot: courgettes, tomatoes, green beans, salads, corn … and even pumpkins! Sylvie is excited: ‘Ben, we will get a vegetable plot too when we have a house, won’t we?’.
On our last evening with Keith and Wendy we have dinner in the dining room. Usually they have their meal in the big kitchen but this time, it’s more formal: crispy white napkins, silver cutlery, white table cloth … wow!! The meal doesn’t change, it’s as good as the other ones. Wendy follows the French standards: starter, main course, cheese, salad and dessert. That’s what we call eating! On Monday, Keith and Wendy give us a boost and drop us off 30 km before St Helens, on the East coast. The weather is cold, grey and windy. It’s hard to leave! We thank Keith and Wendy for all they have done for us (a great time and 500 km way and back to drop us off!) and rush in the downhill.