(Melbourne Cricket Ground — Eureka Tower – Philip Island – Penguins .)
The next day, we had the morning free. We split up, three of us wanting to see the Melbourne Cricket Ground(MCG) while the rest opted for the Eureka Tower and its hair-raising ride, The Edge .
To get to the MCG , we walked first to Federation Square and then hung a left over a bridge towards the MCG and the Rod Laver arena , the site of the Australian Tennis Open . We passed several office goers on their way to work and one of them confirmed that we were on the right track. Soon enough , we found ourselves near Gate 3, admiring the statue of Dennis Lillee , the great fast bowler from Victoria . Luckily for us , we’d got there just in time and we joined three others ( a Sri Lankan couple and a local ) for the 10AM guided tour ( AUS$ 20 each). Our guide was an spry, elderly gentleman in his mid – seventies , nattily attired in a striped blazer and a boater. With him , we spent a most interesting hour inspecting the stands , the beautifully laid playing surface , the various cafes and bars , the Long Bar and the Member’s dining room .
The MCG ,or ‘G’ as it is familiarly known, was built in 1953 . It served as the main stadium for the 1956 Olympic Games and is considered the world’s premier venue for cricket. It has a seating capacity of 100,000 for cricket and 120,000 for Australian Rules football but it is not just the size that impresses. It’s beautifully laid out and the green grass and the blocks of varicolored seats are a feast for the eye. In the block of red seats across from us , one seat was colored yellow to mark where the ball struck after a monstrous line drive blast by Simon O’Donnell.
A wag in our group asked ” Is the spectator who got hit still in hospital ?”
” No, We buried him at the north end of the pitch!” was the deadpan reply by our guide .
Every seat in the house is a good one and , as we found out for ourselves , no matter where you sit , you have a clear line of sight to one or the other scoreboard. What is also impressive is the speed with which the cricket pitches can be removed and the ground re-fitted for Australian Rules Football. Our guide was full of anecdotes and information about the various photographs and trophies that adorned the premises and we were thrilled when he showed us a photo of Don Bradman with Sachin Tendulkar . After praising Sachin’s greatness , he remarked that what Australians most love about Sachin is his sportsmanship nd the manner in which he uncomplainingly ” walks ” after even the most unfortunate decisions .
We had a great time at the G and so did the group that went to the Eureka Tower. It’s the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere and the 85th floor Skydeck has some breathtaking, panoramic views of he city . However , The Edge ( an extra $12 per person) was a bit of a disappointment. Essentially , it’s a horizontal elevator with opaque glass sides which transports up to 12 passengers beyond the wall near the top of the building . When it has reached the end of its travel , the sides and floor clear up , giving passengers the feeling of being suspended in space 1000 feet above the ground . The experience is heightened by piped in sounds of creaking metal and breaking glass. Apparently , it is not as scary as it sounds .
We walked back to the hotel , stopping to buy a book on cricket at the Melbourne Sports Shop , and had a short rest and a light lunch before boarding the coach in Federation Square for the 1/2 day tour to Philip Island .
Our first stop was at the Warranook Farm where we were given vouchers for Scones ( with Devonshire Cream and Jam ) and tea after which we walked across a clearing to see the kangaroos. These were baby kangaroos , the tallest of which only came up to our waists , and gray in color , not brown as I’d thought they would be . They were quite tame , loved to be scratched and gathered around to be fed ( $ 1 / cup of some brown pellets ). There was also a wombat , a heavyset fellow with an impressive set of front teeth with which he chomped on carrots, swans , peahens , macaws and ducks.
Our next stop was at a koala preserve where we were disappointed to find only seven koalas. Koalas are very laid- back animals , spending 20 hours or more just sleeping . They have a flexible skeleton that enables them to mold themselves to tree branches as they sleep. Unfortunately for the slow-moving koalas are easy prey for predators and frequent victims of motorists. In recent years they have been killed in large numbers as they try to cross the roads . They are , however too too cute and cuddly . One of them was fast asleep in a low overhanging branch and we got some good closeups .
Back on the bus , we proceeded to Philip Island with one unnecessary stop at an unimpressive chocolate store. As we approached Philip Island , we began to see wallabies, first one , than two or three at a time and finally by the dozen . Wallabies are essentially like half-size kangaroos and come in five different types. Those were the red necked variety , mostly dark grey and brown with black paws . By the time we reached Philip Island we’d seen so many that they were no longer an oddity.
Philip Island is a popular summer destination for Melbourne residents, many of whom have summer cottages there. It’s also known for hosting motor sports events and we saw motorcyclists preparing for a Grand Prix event to be held the week after. Philip Island is best known for the Penguin Parade which we were there for, and which attracts 3.5 million visitors annually. The penguins are the smallest variety of penguin there is , only 13 inches high, and during the day they have been out at sea stuffing themselves with fish .Each evening , regular as clockwork , groups of penguins gather in the shallows and then waddle across the beach to travel a pre determined path to their nests or burrows about a mile away . This happens at dusk when it is difficult for predators to spot them . Penguin watching is big business and upwards of 4,000 visitors are on hand each day to watch the penguin parade .
After traversing a series of walkways we sat down in bleachers strategically positioned to offer the best view of the Penguin Parade. The crowd waited with bated breath , straining their eyes in the gathering dusk to see the first sign of penguins at the water’s edge .Then there was a murmur ” There they are !” and sure enough we saw an indistinct mass at the shoreline. Some minutes of suspense , while the penguins waited to see if it was safe , and then they began to move . As they came closer with their odd shuffling , wobbling gait punctuated by sudden hops we began to see the individual penguins more clearly. Hundreds of spectators held their breath as the penguins negotiated a well-worn path , dimly lit by unobtrusive lamps so as not to alarm them . They passed within a few feet of us arousing a mixture of emotions in us . They were cute , funny and brave all at once. When you are only 13 inches tall , a mile and a half is a long journey . Yet these penguins do it , rest up for a couple of days , then do it all over again , all the while negotiating a gauntlet of predators . As we watched , we were able to appreciate the individual personalities of the penguins. There would be those who were bolder than their fellows and took the lead ; then a clump of followers which broke apart into groups of two or three .There were also a few loners waddling along at their own pace. There was one young one that got separated from its mother and kept attempting to join new groups only to be rebuffed. At the time we left , it was still trying without success ; we hoped that it would succeed.We watched for the best part of an hour as new groups of penguins came to the water’s edge then made their way to the burrows . In order to watch the parade , we spectators had traveled at considerable expense from as far as a hundred miles away. On the face of it , it didn’t make sense to travel that far to watch a few penguins but it did . It took us out of our mundane lives and gave us a glimpse of the beauty, the poetry , the harshness of Mother Nature where every day is a struggle to survive.
The ride back was a blur since we were all tired.The next thing I knew we were back in Melbourne at our hotel.
Advice if you are visiting Melbourne : Forget about the Queen Victoria Market . Instead , you might want to visit the Old Melbourne Gaol where Australia’s most famous bushranger ( outlaw) , Ned Kelly was hanged in 1880. If your taste leans to the macabre , you’ll love the displays of death masks and other memorabilia including a working scaffold. If you are interested in movies try the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in the Federation Square area.
Next : Alice Springs and Ayers Rock ( Uluru)