Posts Tagged ‘Melbourne’

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.

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.

Crocodile shows

28 June 2009

Today we went to a crocodile show at the Melbourne Zoo called Crocodilia. Almost five months ago to the day, we went to a crocodile show at the Phuket Zoo in Thailand. Can you spot the differences?

Croc show 5

Phuket Zoo 6

Croc show 10

Phuket Zoo 4

I know, I know, it’s easy to see: at the Melbourne Zoo, the keeper is handling a juvenile American Alligator, whilst in Phuket, the keeper is handling a full-grown Asian crocodile.

Seriously though, there were also differences in what we learned at the respective shows.

At Melbourne Zoo, we learned that crocodilia have evolved with five key characteristics that have enabled them to survive for more than 2 million years: the ability to be submerged but breathe above the water; the capacity to draw energy from the sun through their backs; a rudder-like tail that propels them through the water; estivation, or the ability to hibernate during hot, dry times of food scarcity and re-emerge once the rains come; and being communicate with their young, even whilst the babies are still inside the eggs. A mother crocodile may use her teeth to help a baby having trouble breaking out of its egg.

In the first photo, Tash can be seen far right standing next to the zookeeper and holding a megaphone to ‘demonstrate’ a baby crocodile communicating with her mother. And because she was part of the show, she got to pat the American Alligator afterwards [photo 3].

At Phuket Zoo, we learned sometimes a crocodile will simply not be roused, no matter how many times it is poked, prodded and dragged by the tail [photo 4] — and even when someone lies on top of it [photo 3].

The Crocodilia show is part of Melbourne Zoo’s school holiday program and is on at 11am and 1pm in the marquee next to the Carousel park.

The Crocodile Show at Phuket Zoo is a feature attraction and can be seen at various times throughout the day.

Where the heart is

1 August 2008

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde describes a cigarette as “the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite and it leaves one unsatisfied.”

The same might be said of dividing one’s life between Australia and Asia.

Self timer 1This was brought home to me this month after a lightning visit to Melbourne with Tash. I was in two minds about going home mid-winter – our original return date, had we not decided to stay another 6 months – but I wanted to see my family and I knew they’d want to see Tash. Plus there was stuff to sort out with the house and a few missed 40th birthdays to celebrate… What finally tipped the balance in favour was an invitation to speak at the inaugural Reader’s Feast Crime & Justice Festival at the old Abbotsford Convent from 18-20 July (click here for my festival wrap-up).

The trip was frankly exhausting. I had a to-do list as long as my arm, a body-clock set to Cambodian time, and boots a size too small. And I was sleeping with a two-year-old somniloquist and bed-hog. A friend in Phnom Penh was spot-on when he predicted I’d enjoy the novelty of the cold weather for the first 48 hours, after which I’d had enough. My head is bowed in the all photos taken during our stay (above) because I developed a hideous cold sore below my nose on Day 3, which lasted the rest of the trip.


It was so good to spend time with family and friends. To hang out and drink wine with Steph and Christos, talking books and politics. To meet other writers and rave about crime fiction. To catch up with Melissa from my mothers’ group while our daughters Tash and Tiia rekindled their friendship. To spend a day in Yarraville with my Dad, Tash and nephew Vinnie. To have dinner with Luke and Kate at home, Dean at the Edinburgh Castle, Cousin Mary at Cafe Bedda, Suzie at Rumi – meals that took in venison sausages, roo fillets, Sicilian pasta, modern Lebanese delicacies. To join in one of my aunt Dominica’s fabulous lunches (olives, dips, harira, cheeses and chocolate cake to die for), surrounded by family. To spend precious time with my Mum. To nut out the entire Saturday Age cryptic crossword with Cousin Mary over a bottle of excellent Australian shiraz. To shop for children’s books with Helen and be spoiled for choice. To talk with my friend Ange with no echo over the phone line. To take Tash to parks and catch up with our neighbours. To give her warm baths, aided by Cousin Georgia. To visit our house and remember all the reasons why we chose to live there. To buy The Big Issue from my regular vendor Greg. To walk unencumbered along footpaths. To cover long distances by train. To knit. To drink water straight from the tap.

Things I can’t do in Cambodia.

But I missed Phnom Penh, first and foremost because Roo was there, but for other reasons, too. I missed the warmth of the climate, the heat of the food. I missed talking with Roo over cheap mojitos and tuk-tuk rides with Tash. I missed the daily assault on my senses and the challenges to my values.

I was tired before I left for Melbourne and the trip proved a good circuit-breaker. I returned exhausted but with renewed energy and enthusiasm for the time we have left here in Cambodia.

People in Melbourne asked if we’re really coming home in January 2009. I guess their scepticism is justified, given we came away for six months and extended this to twelve. And it is tempting to stay. It’s easy for me and Roo to interesting work that pays enough for us to buy time: we can live longer on less money. Tash is thriving, we’ve made good friends here, and the living is easy for expatriates like us. Best of all, we have time together as a family that we would not have back in Australia.

But we miss the rest of our family, our friends, our house, the cultural reference points that give us a sense of belonging. And Cambodia is the sort of place that could get to you after a while. Roo and I have talked about this and agree: we should leave the party while we’re still having fun.

The day Tash and I got back to Phnom Penh, a torrential downpour flooded our neighbourhood, turning streets into streams within minutes. I wished I could send that storm to Melbourne where water storage levels hover around 30%, and the land can only dream of such rain.

But I don’t get to mix and match. Though I’ll always be unsatisfied by having to choose between the two, I must take the perfect pleasures of Australia and Cambodia one at a time — even if my heart feels at home in both.

(Dedicated to Cousin Mary with thanks for her superb hospitality during our stay in Melbourne).