Archive for the ‘Melbourne’ Category

Celebrating Children’s Books

3 April 2011

Children's Book FestivalKudos to the Wheeler Centre for Books Writing and Ideas for today’s Children’s Book Festival. I heard a number of speakers describe it as Melbourne’s ‘first’ Children’s Book Festival, and I’m hoping this means it will become a regular fixture in the calendar for our City of Literature.

Next year it won’t be the morning after my brother’s 40th birthday celebration and we’ll make a proper of a day of it. This time around, we managed a couple of ‘Experimedia’ Children’s Workshops in the State Library of Victoria. This included a talk by illustrator Bob Graham, whose book Jethro Byrd, Fairy Child is one Tash enjoys. I was inspired by the fact that Bob didn’t start writing and illustrating children’s books until he was 40 (I was 3 months shy of my 40th when my own first book was published), and he’s gone on to win multiple awards and build an international following — not that you’d know it from his humble presentation.

Children's Book FestivalWe had actually gone to the Experimedia space to see Leigh Hobbs, writer/illustrator of the Horrible Harriet, Old Tom, Fiona the Pig and Mister Chicken, books beloved by all our family. By the time I worked out that there were simultaneous sessions going on, Leigh had already run a session for the kids on how to draw Old Tom. However, Tash managed to sit in on a lesson in how to draw Mister Chicken — and did a pretty good job of it if I do say so [at the risk of sounding like a doting mother] myself.

Following the workshops was a screening of Shaun Tan’s Oscar winning short animation, The Lost Thing — another great reason to attend the Children’s Book Festival when we did. The film was stunning and it was a real treat to see it on a big screen in a public space — me, Roo and Tash, all sprawled on the same beanbag. All three of us loved it.Children's Book Festival

We headed outside after this to the lawns of the State Library where Coco’s Lunch were performing. We watched and listened while queuing up for the free petting zoo, which in an homage to the Mem Fox/Judy Horacek classic contained a green sheep among its residents, plus a green-faced piglet that had obviously been butting heads with the green sheep. Tash’s favourites were a sweet little kid and a soft white duck.

Children's Book FestivalWe would have stayed longer if not for the party the night before, as we didn’t get to the Kids’ Own Publishing Book Cubby — which looked great — nor to any of the book signings or exhibitions. But as I said, I’m hopeful today augurs in the Children’s Book Festival as an annual event.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that my partner Andrew Nette currently holds a Wheeler Centre Fellowship.

This post also appears on my author blog.


Travelling with kids: a reminder

16 March 2011

Werribee Open Range ZooWe spent the Labour Day public holiday this year at Werribee Open Range Zoo, an experience which funnily enough reminded me of what it was like travelling in South East Asia with Natasha. I was reminded that what excites me is not always the same as what excites her. Furthermore, I need not to let what I think should excite her distract me from what actually does excite her. I might even learn something.

Werribee Open Range ZooA case in point: while I was excited by the hippos (left), Tash was more excited by the Hippo Play Trail and way more excited by the Hippo Water Play (above). In truth the statue versions with their inviting climbs and tricky fountains were considerably more animated than the real thing. Note the fountains come on once the thermostat hits 23 degrees.

Werribee Open Range ZooWhile I think the Scimitar Oryx are exquisite and amazing, especially given they are endangered and ‘conservation dependant’, Tash found the packaging they came in (below) — from the Monarto Zoo in South Australia — way more interesting. And after ten minutes of crawling in and out of packing crates, I had to concede she had a point. The animal packaging playground at the end of the Pula Reserve Trail is inspired.

Werribee Open Range ZooDifferences aside, both Tash and I were very excited to see four-week old zebra foal Shamwari (below) during our Safari bus tour, while Roo enjoyed getting up close and personal with the giraffe herd.

When we asked Tash about her favourite part of the day, she nominated the icy-pole in the Meerkat Bistro. Sometimes Roo and I wonder why we try so hard…

Werribee Open Range ZooBut all three of us were united in our happiness on the way home to visit the Ðòng Quê restaurant for a late lunch of Hanoi style grilled pork with vermicelli noodles, Vietnamese coleslaw with shrimp and pork, and steamed rice paper with grilled pork and rice crackers. Our favourite eatery in Footscray, Ðòng Quê can be found at 102 Hopkins Street.

The day was a salient reminder to recalibrate expectations when travelling with a child, which is timely, given we are heading back to Thailand in less than a month. We’ll be spending the school holidays on what will be a research trip for me, visiting the parts of Thailand where my next book will be set.

Who knows what delights Tash may open my eyes to.

Nemo found! Time to move on…

27 February 2011

Aquarium 1That Nemo has a lot to answer for. Ever since the 2003 animated film took over the imaginations of children throughout the world, Clown Fish — and to a lesser extent puffer fish — have enjoyed celebrity status at the expense of other, arguably more fascinating marine life. Sure, Clown Fish are cute and some species are immune to the sting of anemones. But they can’t match the sea stars for dexterity, the sea jellies for grace, the sea lions for splendour, the Weedy Sea Dragon for camouflage and the giant cuttlefish for strangeness.

All these creatures and more can be admired up close at the Melbourne Aquarium, where we spent several hours this afternoon. The first exhibit inside the door is the penguin enclosure, where King and Gentoo penguins stand around in huddles on the ice like guests at a winter wedding who’ve stepped outside for a smoke. They are more animated in the water and if you step around to the right side of the tank, chances are you’ll have the view — and the photo opportunities — to yourself.

Aquarium 2Retrace your steps to go through to the Ice Station display and the Weird and Wonderful exhibits featuring the aforementioned lion fish, giant cuttlefish and weedy sea dragons, as well as the gruesome and highly toxic stone fish, moray eels and long-necked turtles. The weedy sea dragons had babies earlier this month and the dear little things, looking like sprigs of seaweed, are worth checking out.

The next area is called From River to Reef and include exhibits where kids (and game adults) can crawl under the tanks and get a close look at freshwater rays, sucker fish and eels through perspex bubbles. There are touchable exhibits, too, of sharks’ egg sacs, sea stars and sponges in the rock pools sections, where a staff member is available to answer questions about the different animals. See for yourself how sea stars grow a new limb when they lose one. There are also large hermit crabs and gorgeous coloured anemones to be seen in the rock pools.

Aquarium 5In the nearby lagoon are barramundi, freshwater sharks and one of my favourite of the creatures we saw today, the Freshwater Sawfish, its long serrated blade of a nose like small chainsaw. It looks bizarre, almost mythical, but is actually quite gentle, a member of the ray family, the saw is used for digging rather than combat.

We hightailed it to the Oceanarium a.k.a Sharks Alive to attend the 2pm Dive Feed. It’s a great spectacle watching the divers get sandwiched against the glass of the 2.2 million litre tank by the giant Smooth Stingrays angling for some fish. The Oceanarium is currently housing a couple of sea turtles until they are fit enough to be released back into the wild, and they were giving the rays a run for their money on the feeding frenzy.

As the divers surfaced, we doubled back to the Coral Atoll exhibit to see the beautiful corals and pretty fish including the Regal Blue Tang (that’d be ‘Dory’ to you Finding Nemo fans) and bright yellow Butterfly Fish. The Coral Atoll also houses a cheeky spotted Eagle Ray that seemed as keen to get a good look at Tash as she was to look at it.

Aquarium 6In the Sea Jellies exhibit, the room is dark and the tanks are UV-lit, adding to the hypnotic effect of watching these graceful creatures in action.

The other place to sit and stare is the Ocean Theatre on the far side of the Oceanarium before the kids play area. I recommend heading their before your kid runs out of steam as it’s the perfect spot to gaze on sharks — including a Scalloped Hammerhead — rays and giant snapper.

The Melbourne Aquarium is not a cheap date at $33.50/adult and $19/child. But there are family discounts and other specials worth looking out for. The free Melbourne guide found in the City Circle tram has a 20% discount coupon, and we got something in the mail recently that entitled us to one free ticket of equal or lesser value, saving us the price of an adult ticket today. It’s worth checking publications that target tourists to see what you can find.

It beats watching re-runs of Finding Nemo.

Minibeasts and Altona

21 January 2011

Minibeasts at Altona LibraryTwo things to rave about today: Andrew Wegener’s Minibeasts show, and the suburb of Altona in Melbourne’s west.

It was thanks to the former that we ended up at the latter. Andrew is a former Melbourne Zoo keeper, author, photographer, community educator and government licensed Commercial Wildlife Demonstrator. His Australian Wildlife Lecturers appears annually at the Altona Library courtesy of the Hobson’s Bay Council. I saw it advertised in the paper, and we headed there today for an amazing ‘hands-on’ learning experience.

Minibeasts at Altona LibraryAndrew brings live snakes, lizards, stick insects, a tortoise and tree frogs, all of which can be handled — under careful supervision — by kids and adults alike. In fact, the adults outnumbered the kids most of the time we were at the library. As you handle the animals, Andrew passes on interesting information about them. I learned that frogs breath and absorb water through their skin, for example, and that some lizards — like the blue-tongue — have live births while others lay eggs. Also very few tortoises can turn themselves over if they are knocked on to their backs/shells, the long-necked tortoise in Andrew’s care being an exception.

There are live spiders in containers and other beasties in tanks, all clearly labelled and accompanied by fact sheets. Here I learned that white-tailed spider bites, while painful, are not life-threatening. Phew!

Minibeasts at Altona LibraryThere are other minibeasts preserved in formaldehyde or behind glass, including a baby shark and a small blue-ringed octopus. The library has an impressive display of stuffed animals and shells, while I think others belonged to Andrew. It was a treat to see the delighted look on my nine-month-old nephew’s face when his hand made contact with possum fur.

Tash was a little disappointed there was no redback handling, also that she wasn’t allowed to kiss the green tree frog and turn him into a prince. But the photos show how much we all enjoyed the experience.

Minibeasts at Altona LibraryAs well as being learned and informative, Andrew is entertaining and patient. He set up photos for us, producing a great record of a wonderful experience. He doesn’t do parties — too much like babysitting — and he warns against dodgy snake wranglers posing as kids entertainers. But he’s available for school incursions and excursions covering a range of wildlife issues, including beach walks and rockpool rambles. Highly recommended.

Kudos to the Hobson’s Bay Council for providing such a wonderful, free school holiday event, and to the Altona Library for being so hospitable. It was great to see a group of older persons and carers enjoying the same experience as the four-, five-, fifteen- and forty-something-year-olds in our party.

Minibeasts at Altona LibraryAltona Library is located a convenient two blocks from Altona Station on the corner of Sargood and Queen Streets. Another block south on Sargood Street is the RJ Logan Reserve, a shady park with a kids playground, which overlooks Altona Beach. Alongside the park on Pier Street is the Altona Pines Takeaway, which sells seriously good fish and chips. The nearby Pier Cafe next door has good coffee. In terms of urban planning, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Our band of four little kids, one teen and two hot mamas enjoyed fish and chips at a table in the shade right by the playground with a view of the beach. The air was filled with dragon flies and the Morton Bay Fig Tree begged the kids to come back again when they were big enough to climb it.

We’ll be back.

Full set of pics here.

Tim Burton, The Exhibition

28 June 2010

Tim Burton 03Although this is a blog devoted to travelling with children, this post begins with a disclaimer: Tim Burton, The Exhibition may not be suitable for your small children. Even our Natasha, who has a dark sense of humour for a four-year-old and often plays games involving monsters, witches and red-back spiders, declared the Tim Burton, The Exhibition was ‘too scary for me’.

All the same, she lasted an hour and a half at the fantastic exhibit put together by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne, finding enough to intrigue and beguile her without being too scary.

In fact, when we asked afterwards about her favourite part of the exhibition, she nominated a clip from The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) in which a skeletal Santa distributes evil toys that terrorise the neighbourhood. She watched the same clip about four times. Go figure.

Tim Burton 01Tash also enjoyed hanging out in the Activity Space, drawing pictures of princesses that turned out eerily like the Corpse Bride. For me seeing some of the public art inspired by the exhibition was almost as good as the exhibition itself.

My undisputed highlight was the six-minute, stop animation film Vincent, which Burton made in 1982 as a tribute to Vincent Price, whom he convinced to narrate the film. Vincent Price’s autograph is on display amidst Burton’s notes and sketches for this wonderful short film.

I also loved what appears on the exhibition map as the ‘Burtonarium’, a carnivalesque tunnel covered in day-glo images of creatures, which leads to a wacky merry-go-round of monsters and electric lights, accompanied by haunting music.

I suspect I’m not alone in planning a big retrospective viewing of Burton’s films as a result of seeing this exhibition. I was reminded of how much I enjoyed Ed Wood, for example, and how long it was since I’d seen Edward Scissorhands. And clearly Tash and I need to see The Nightmare Before Christmas in its entirety.

But there was so much to see, and much as I loved seeing it with Natasha, I plan to go back for a second visit to the exhibition sans child. I want to linger over Burton’s sketches, notes and paintings — not the sort of exhibits to keep a child entertained — and take a longer look at the material Tash found too scary.

If you do go to the show with kids, it pays to buy tickets on-line in advance to avoid the lengthy queues. I also recommend going in a group so you can take turns to stay with the child while they are preoccupied — usually with the film clips — and view the finer details in the show.

It’s a wonderful exhibit, a tribute to Burton’s unique and wild imagination, which also does the best possible thing an art exhibition can do: it calls forth an imaginative response in the viewer.

I suspect all of us will have wild dreams tonight.

Meeting Mali at Melbourne Zoo

7 June 2010

Baby Mail is so cute 2Last month Tash and I finally got to meet Mali, Melbourne Zoo‘s newest addition to the herd that calls the Trail of the Elephants home. In fact, according to the Melbourne Zoo website, she is the first elephant born in the zoo’s 147-year history.

The ‘celebelephant’ (celebrity elephant) did not disappoint. She is hairy and cute and playful — full of personality according to the commentary kept up by the keepers.

Apparently elephants are allo-parents, that is, the whole tribe looks after the babies–like the ‘sparents’ (spare parents) Mia Freedman writes about. In this picture, Mali is running around with her grandmother, which was apt, seeing as how that’s what Tash was doing a lot of that same week: my mother was visiting from NSW and came to the zoo with us.

We didn’t have to queue for long at all to see Mali. She is currently on show from 11 am-3 pm.

We’ve been taking Tash to the Melbourne Zoo since she was a toddler and just decided to renew our Friends of the Zoo membership for another year. It pays for itself within a few visits, and given we are only two train stations away, we can afford to go on the spur of the moment, even for a short visit.

Tash and the tortoisesMelbourne Zoo is the country’s oldest. I have a strong memory of visiting as a child, seeing the same giant tortoises, who are now in their seventies. One of the old-style enclosures has been preserved for the record, and I remember, too, watching the desperate pacing of the big cats in those concrete pens. I know zoos are artificial, imperfect and don’t come close to the thrill of seeing wild creatures in their natural element. But each visit renews my sense of awe at the brilliant diversity of life on this planet and impels to do more to contribute to the conservation of that diversity.

We are loving the new marine precinct with its seal viewing ‘cinemas’ and tanks of the less showy but equally gorgeous weedy sea dragons. So what if the kids like playing on the pirate ship more than watching the wildlife: I still get to watch the seals.

Tash always wants to see the zebras, while her cousin Vinnie–under the influence of The Lion King–is currently enamoured by the wild dogs that share the lion enclosure.

We all love the reptile house, which like the marine precinct is great to visit regardless of the weather. My personal favourite exhibit is the bright blue poison frog–though on our most recent visit, we were all captivated by the black-headed pythons that were literally climbing the walls.

Zoo May 8But Tash’s very favourite thing at Melbourne Zoo is the orangutan nest. Every time we visit the complex that houses the quiet orangutans and their noisy neighbours, the siamangs, Tash heads straight for the nest, makes a little bed out of the fabric leaves and curls up for a rest. And being under cover, this exhibit can also be visited at this time of year, too.

As an aside, I read recently that a new study, conducted at Melbourne Zoo, suggests orangutans like looking at us as much as we like looking at them. It certainly seems that way in the photo on the right, taken on a visit to the zoo last May. (Tash chose her outfit on that occasion specially to visit the leopards).

And I’ve just read on the Melbourne Zoo website that the new Sumatran tiger clubs have made their public debut. Looks like we’ll be heading back soon…

Year of the Tiger

14 February 2010

Year of the Tiger 06Tash, Roo and I headed into Melbourne’s CBD this morning to celebrate Chinese New Year: the Year of the (Metal) Tiger.

For an agnostic, I’m quite superstitious about Chinese New Year. In 2008, the Year of the Rat, I wore an ox pendant in my earring for the entire year as I read this helped deflect negative Rat vibes for Horse people like myself. It seemed to work: I had a great year.

According to Chinese astrology, the Year of the Tiger is characterised by dramatic change, intensity and travel. This can be exciting for those of us who thrive on change. But as some change can be unwelcome, saddening, even catastrophic, we wanted to get the year off to an auspicious start.

For this reason, we said yes to the ‘money-bags’ we were offered at our favourite yum cha place, the New Kum Den restaurant on Heffernan Lane. The money bags–deep-fried parcels of prawn, pork and corn fastened into bags with strands of spring onion–help to bring wealth in the year ahead.

Year of the Tiger 05We also took care to position ourselves for the Dai Loong Dragon Parade where we could touch the dragon as it passed. This, too, is said to bring good fortune in the year ahead. (Unfortunately, in an inauspicious moment, the camera battery ran out, hence no photos of the Dragon!).

Earlier we had been deafened by firecrackers exploding at the intersection of Russell and Little Bourke Streets. Gangs of musicians and lion dancers traversed the laneways bound by Exhibition, Lonsdale, Swanston and Russell Streets to conduct the rituals believed to augur in a prosperous year. Strands of red firecrackers are let off, adding to the noise of the music to scare away evil spirits. Dancing lions snap at heads of lettuce hanging at the entrances of shop-fronts to bring good luck through the doors.

TT tiger portraitCelebrating New Year in Melbourne’s Chinatown is something I look forward to, and it just seems to get bigger and better. The Children’s Corner in a tent near the intersection of Russell and Lonsdale Streets offered pictures to colour in and small gifts to reward the effort. There was a wonderful array of performances on offer, culminating in a karaoke competition this evening–with “singing lovers” welcomed in a dual celebration of Valentine’s Day.

Of course, we didn’t last that long: our little Rooster had a pressing play date and the Snake and I were tired after a big night out at the inaugural Wheeler Centre event. But that’s another story.

And the photo of the tiger (right) was not taken today in Melbourne’s Chinatown, but in April 2008 at the Tiger Temple in Thailand’s Kanchanaburi province. Whenever I find myself coddling Natasha, I look at this photo and it gives me perspective.

Gong Xi Fa Cai! Happy Chinese New Year. May the change that follows be welcome.

NAIDOC Day at the Collingwood Children’s Farm

13 July 2009

Tash and I celebrated NAIDOC Day on 9 July 2009 at the Collingwood Children’s Farm in Abbotsford, an event organised by Aboriginal Housing Victoria.

NAIDOC stands for National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee and NAIDOC week is an opportunity to celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and the contributions of Indigenous Australians in all walks of life.

Horse kiss for TashThe event was brilliantly organised and included a traditional music and dance session where an Indigenous elder and young dancers invited kids in the audience to learn to dance like emus, kangaroos and eagles. There was also a dance symbolising fishing and the celebration of a good catch. Tash was too shy to join in the dancing but was rapt to witness the didgeridoo played live (she’s only seen it in books and heard it on CD).

My friend Helen alerted me to the NAIDOC Day event and we met up with her and her 2+ year old daughter Iris, sister Genevieve and her 4 kids for the celebration. We participated in a smoking ceremony, where the kids had their faces painted with ochre, followed by a boomerang painting session that all the kids got into.

There were drinks, fresh fruit, cakes, damper and barbequed sausages/vegie burgers in bread–all free, thanks to Aboriginal Housing Victoria and the fabulous volunteers at the Collingwood Children’s Farm.

It was wonderful to be around so many Aboriginal families and kids having fun.

The Farm itself was a great venue, the landscape forming a beautiful backdrop to the ceremonies, and lots of farm animals on hand to entertain the kids afterwards. For Tash the highlight was hand-feeding fresh grass to a white horse; I was rather taken with the 10-day-old black piglets.

Collingwood Children's Farm 1We last took Tash to the Collingwood Children’s Farm when she was just under 18 months old, thinking that because she enjoyed reading about farm animals and emulating their noises, she would enjoy seeing the real thing. In fact, most of the animals–bar the ducks and chickens–scared the hell out of her. This visit was much more successful.

I’d always thought the Children’s Farm, whilst wonderful, a bit expensive to visit at $16 per family; but entry was free on NAIDOC Day and Helen tells me it only costs $2 per adult on Farmers’ Market days, the second Saturday of every month, which is great value.

I forgot the camera, but Helen took some great photos, including the one above of the white horse kissing Tash.

I hope to make NAIDOC Day at the Children’s Farm an annual event – even if it means skiving off work to be there.


12 February 2009

On Saturday 7 February the temperature soared to 46.4 degrees Celsius (115.5 degrees Fahrenhiet) in Melbourne and hot, gale force winds raced across the state of Victoria from the north. Authorities warned of high bushfire danger, the land parched more than a month without rain. But no one anticipated the hell to follow.

‘Black Saturday’ saw vast parts of the state engulfed by fires too fast to fight or flee. Witnesses describe flames ‘raining down from the sky’, ‘like a snowstorm of red embers’. Trees exploded, homes burned, cars were vaporised. Whole towns–Marysville, Kinglake, Flowerdale–were razed.

At last count, 181 people have died. More than 50 others are still missing. Most burned to death in their cars as they tried to flee.

Victoria has been in a state of shock and grief this past week. Everyone seems to know someone affected by the fires.

An appeal set up by the Australian Red Cross has so far raised nearly $50 million. Donations can be made here.

Only days later, the temperature has plummeted as low as 12 degrees overnight. No one dares complain about the sudden cold: for the first time this week, conditions have improved for those still fighting the fires.

And I never thought I’d say it, but I miss the weather in Cambodia. I miss the reliability of the heat. I  miss the torrential monsoonal rains and the cooling, kite-flying winds. I miss the moist air that made my skin glow and hair curl. Yet when I wrote a list of all the things I would and would not miss about Cambodia in the days before leaving Phnom Penh, the weather was on the list of what I would not miss.

Nothing like drought, heatwaves and raging bushfires to put things in perspective.


29 January 2009

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – Our year in Southeast Asia has been bookended by heatwaves.

Last weekend, Roo, Tash and I returned home, just in time for Melbourne’s worst heatwave in one hundred years.

Today is the second day of a predicted four days of temperatures over 40 degrees celsius. Yesterday it hit 43.2 degrees. Fortunately, we didn’t suffer power cuts, unlike others around the state, though I suspect our turn will come.

I haven’t been this hot since we left Melbourne just over a year ago. I remember arriving in Phnom Penh and someone asking if we found it too hot. ‘Are you kidding?’ I said, ‘It’s ten degrees cooler here than it was back home.’

And we’re not talking the wet, redolent heat of Southeast Asia that envelops you like a cloud and almost feels as if it could hold you up. Hothouse heat that makes things grow so fast you can almost see it. This is the heat of deserts and kilns that leaves everything hot to the touch, hurts the eyes and threatens to knock you out. Heat that kills.

Our parks are bleak expanses of dead grass and dust. No one has lawn anymore. Carlton’s streets are strewn with leaves that couldn’t hold on until autumn to fall off and die.

That said, the native plants–ghost gums, grevilleas, leucadendrons and grass trees–appear to be thriving. Our own front yard is flush with Australian natives, an embarrassment of riches amongst the withered European gardens of our neighbourhoods.

By contrast, the survivors in the back garden evoke the Mediterranean: fig tree, pomegranate, eggplants and Greek basil. We coax the tomato and basil plants to stay and fight another day with water bucketed from showers, baths and washing up.

Yet neither the hellish weather nor the bleak economic forecast can diminish how happy we are to be back. There are many things we’ll miss about Cambodia–see forthcoming posts on the subject–not to mention southern Thailand, where we enjoyed a blissful, last-gasp holiday.

But it feels good to be home.