Transported by a time machine – bicycling back to old times in Melbourne.

Melbourne Australia

A simple bicycle journey took me back 28 years. And at the same time it helped change my negative reaction to 21st century Melbourne.

Before arriving everyone who has been to Melbourne in recent years  told me “You’ll be amazed how much it has changed”. I cast an interested eye over media and travel stories from Melbourne and I sensed that the city had successfully regenerated itself, especially acclaimed developments on the south bank of the River Yarra which had opened up a neglected city zone.

I guess gentle Adelaide was a bit of a false introduction to today’s Australia because on arrival in Melbourne I was shocked by the new freeways, the link roads, the intrusiveness of the new city centre buildings and above all else by the traffic. And when we reached our friend’s house we took a walk down to our old haunts of Chapel Street but they no longer felt like a friendly environment of cafes and small shops but a wall-to-wall temple of consumerism and never-ending traffic, even on a Sunday.

I couldn’t even cheer myself up by playing “When I see an adult on a bicycle I do not despair for the future of the human race” because I didn’t see any cyclists and only a few lonely bikes chained up to lamp-posts – never a good sign. (close to “desert” on my “Utrecht” cycle parking scale).

My gut reaction was really negative. What had become of the Melbourne I so enjoyed? Was it crushed by cars and buildings?

So I needed a pick-me-up. The way to do that was to take a tram up to the city, hire one of Melbourne’s public hire bikes and set off towards the area I used to live to see if the beach-side suburbs had survived the so called “improvements”.

Melbourne Pblic Bike sharing scheme

I started from the bike hire at Federation Square and quickly picked up the car free restaurant and café areas of the South Bank which were obviously colourful and vibrant and a huge improvement on the past. Then I managed to pick up a shared use path which followed the tram route out to Port Melbourne.

When I popped out on the sea front in front of the ferry terminal it was clear that a more low-key gentrification is in progress here too with more refurbishments and new buildings, but on a human scale. On cue the sun came out and a hazy tranquillity descended over the sea. Much better!

Port Melbourne

Bay bike path MelbourneAfter a brief pause I set off south along the Bay cycle paths I had also heard so much about, the ones I wished had existed years ago because then I wanted to ride by the sea but was never able to find a continuous attractive route.

Within minutes I reached Kerford Road Beach and the years just dropped away. This was instantly recognisable. And so, so, peaceful, even the few cars cruising along the beachfront road could not hide the fact that this is an oasis of calm just a short distance from the city centre.

Kerford road beach

After soaking up the atmosphere I swung away from the beach to the residential streets where I once lived to discover an even more remarkable throwback. I am not sure what planning regulations protect this area but it was as if the neat rows of single story houses with their picket fences and verandas were unchanged from the 1930s, never mind the 1980s. The fact that nobody seems to have been allowed to knock them down and rebuild keeps them all low so the sense of huge wide streets is retained too. It was deathly quiet, I could hear the children in the primary school and the rattle of the Middle Park tram a street away.

Middle Park Houses Melbourne Richardson Street Middle Park

The houses in this area may be a bit small for the Australian dream but for a trendy, near-city lifestyle near the beach they have become like gold, I can imagine this community will fight tooth and claw to preserve what they have and so they should. Unsurprisingly the small parade of shops that used to be little more than a convenience store and a laundry are all rather boho and the trendy looking cafes could offer a coffee in whatever blend of bean and milk is in style this week.

Middle Park shops Melbourne

To complete my journey I then biked across into Albert Park, the protective green barrier that keeps Middle Park tucked away from the rampant development of Melbourne. The city is ever present on the skyline but this large park and its attractive curved lake have been an escape for city dwellers for 150 years. It is still covered in the sports pitches, playgrounds and barbeque points that made it a green escape for the area. I walked to work through this park, something I regarded as a real treat then.

Lord Somers Camp and Powerhouse Albert Park Lake Melbourne

 

Melbourne skyline over Albert park Lake

I had expected Albert Park to be damaged by its current role as the home of the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix but it was not immediately obvious as the main features of the park are still the lake and sports pavilions. The only “monstrosity” I discovered at one end was the Formula 1 paddock which is a horrible lump of grey. I find it hard to believe that Australia doesn’t have one architect of note who could have done something sympathetic in this setting.

Formula 1 Grand Prix Paddocks Melbourne

Cadbury Schweppes House MelbourneBeyond the park are Queens Road and St Kilda Road, the noisy arterial roads that runs south from Melbourne’s central district with a long line of high rise offices and apartments that have highly valued views over the park and beyond to the sea. I used to work in St Kilda Road and our 14 storey office block had the most amazing 360 degree panorama, something to make work interesting almost every day, although as a junior sprog I never got remotely near one of the privileged window seats. A few buildings crowd around it now but I bet the top floor is still in demand.

Once I had completed a lap of Albert Park Lake I was completely refreshed and I drifted back through Middle Park to the beach front where I had my bonus dolphin encounter before riding back to the city. I was much more tolerant of the noise, traffic and congestion on my way out because I felt uplifted by my bike ride and my journey back in time.

I am not sure that three twenty-somethings all on their first salary could afford to rent in Middle Park now.  But I have to reflect now that I was so lucky to find a house share in this area as a naïve young bloke new to Melbourne. Even back then I could have lived in the bustling city centre or a happening suburb but the first advert I spotted put me this gentle neighbourhood a short walk from work, park, rugby club and beach.

I am so glad it is still there now and I hope Albert Park and Middle Park will be protected for years to come. If they are I despair a lot less about the future of the human race in Melbourne.

Cycling with dolphins.

Bicycle and dolphin Melbourne
Not two words often combined – cycling and dolphins.

I have had not one but two encounters with these beautiful creatures and both times it happened while cycling. I am sure some readers come from places where they are common but for me they are an extraordinary treat, a fascination from nature programmes on TV since childhood.

On Monday I took a Melbourne bike share bicycle out from the city to revisit the area I lived nearly 30 years ago when I was working in the city. I was returning along the beachfront cycle paths in Middle Park when I spotted the few people on the beach were staring out to sea and taking photos. I couldn’t pick up what it was while riding but I assumed an interesting boat or some divers so I stopped against the beach wall.

Dolphins Middle Park Beach Melbourne

I was absolutely delighted when I realised that there was a small family of dolphins, two adults and a youngster, circling around about 200 metres off shore. The water was millpond smooth on the almost windless afternoon so every ripple was visible. Sadly they never jumped right out of the water but I spent nearly 15 to 20 minutes watching and trying to coincide my photos with the places they surfaced. I was told there were dolphins in the bay when I lived here before but despite coming to this beach to run or swim for much of that year I never saw them. They cannot be that common off these beaches because their appearance was reported in a local paper the next day so I felt even more privileged.

My mind was also taken back nearly nine years to my previous dolphin encounter which remains one of life’s cycle touring highlights. My son Ben and I had a special cycle tour down the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island in December 2005 when he was 14 years old. On the longest day’s ride from Fox Glacier to the Haast Pass the road passed right along a beach and we decided this was the place for our lunch stop. Obligatory stone throwing and larking about ensued before we tackled the sandwiches sitting on the low sea wall. (Bruce Bay I think)Bruce Bay New Zealand

However the notorious West Coast sandflies soon discovered their own free lunch and despite the prodigious amounts of deterrent spray we were about to give up when we had our magic moment. A little group of black and white dusky dolphins started surfing in the waves. They clearly seemed to be playing as they returned time after time in ones and Dolphins New Zealandtwos to race in just under the wave crests. Then as quickly as they had come they disappeared with just a departing fin and a splash on the surface.

On both these occasions I really feel I would not have stopped if I had been in a car or on a tour bus and I would not have recognised the dolphins at driving speed.

Slow travel with the ability to stop and start almost anywhere is part of what makes cycling so special and I treasure my wildlife encounters almost as much as my human ones. I also perhaps wish I carried a bigger, higher quality camera when I am photographing animals because they are even more difficult than cyclists for reasonable images.

But the quality of the photos cannot take away the memories and dolphin encounters remain rare and precious moments in my cycling life.

I Do Not Despair’s final musings on Adelaide, our Velo-city Global 2014 host.

Central Adelaide seen from the Torrens River

Time flies at Velo-city, and it goes even faster when we have to dash off for a tour of long neglected friends and relatives around Australia and New Zealand.

So before I am swamped by the hustle and bustle of Melbourne and Sydney here are my final visitor’s reflections on Adelaide.*  The most common description of Adelaide I hear from Australians is that Adelaide is “just a big country town” which is something of a put down from its big brash neighbours. But as a country boy myself that isn’t a put down, it’s a commendation.

There is undoubtedly a grain of truth in the description. At its heart Adelaide remains a very accessible and relatively relaxed city. Its design helps, the 19th century utopian layout with green spaces and a circular park around the compact central district create a nice atmosphere. That’s the impression I really remember from when I first went there in the 1980s, work trips that sometimes involved a weekend break in the city. The city is working incredibly hard to keep, or maybe recreate that feeling, as a modern liveable city with improvements to the city open spaces, pedestrian streets and eating quarters where people want to spend time. I liked it then and I liked it this time.

Veggie Velo Adelaide

There are also still quite a lot of those 19th and early 20th century buildings that we can call “colonial” style, from government buildings to churches, pubs and shops. They are unmistakeably Australian and a vital part of the city character.

 

Franklin Hotel Adelaide Hindley Street Adelaide

However these are somewhat swamped by the modern buildings that are allowed to dominate the skyline and create the impression of much narrower streets, especially on the gloomier days.

Adelaide Post office Haighs Chocolates at the Beehive Adelaide

Biggest shock of all was to see the Adelaide Oval dominating the banks of the River Torrens to the North. I recall a traditional green painted cricket ground that nestled into the parkland and was an attractive companion to the nearby cathedral. Now it is a monster, but one that attracts up to 70,000 footie fans (Australian Rules Football) every weekend and is a major contributor to the city economy. As a fan I like these great cathedrals of sport, however I have to say that it just seemed a bit intrusive compared to what I remember.

Adelaide Oval and Adelaide cathedral Adelaide Oval at Night

The cycling environment reflected the city.

There is a huge amount of space for cycling and it would be so easy to grab a lane in most streets but at the moment that is not a political reality. The city Mayor and the state government of South Australia both understand the need to do something about the impact of cars on the city and to deliver the liveable city they want. But with big wide streets and low traffic levels compared to many other cities the imperative for change in travel behaviour isn’t there yet. The one segregated cycle lane in the centre lane has yet to be completed due to the anti-cycling pressure, but there are at least other facilities which can act as the forerunners for change.

Adelaide cycling Cycling Adelaide

I found it quite easy to ride most of the time and I think the traffic really wasn’t especially aggressive compared to many other cities I have ridden in. And the traffic levels really were very light, except for a brief burst in rush hour and the hours after the footie on a Saturday night.

However the huge roads with multiple lanes did make it almost impossible to work out how to turn right and I spent frustrating amounts of time stuck at traffic lights which made progress painfully slow. Some of our colleagues from countries that have superb infrastructure found it intimidating and it certainly isn’t conducive to nervous cyclists because of the difficult junctions.

Bike brekkie sea of lycraConfirming that impression the cycling levels were apparently low and completely dominated by sporty looking cyclists. You can see from my photos that I hardly ever had a cyclist as a backdrop. It was autumnal and rainy on some days – but none?  At the weekend along the Torrens there were lots of families but even in the city the number of riders in day clothes was almost non-existent. The mass ride for Velo-city was called the Bike Brekkie Ride and was meant to attract the city cycling community. If the turnout was typical it showed that the city really doesn’t have an underlying daily cycling culture.

Mayor and CEO of Adelaide on the Bike Brekkie RideThe Mayor and the Adelaide City CEO almost stood out in their day clothes. I was riding along in my shirt and jacket and felt like I had completely met the brief “to stand out in the crowd”, I even attracted comments to that effect.

And the cycle helmets really, really do not help. It is almost impossible in my mind to remove the “warrior” impression portrayed by almost cyclist I saw just because they were forced to wear a plastic lid. Normalised cycling remains a bit of leap of faith at the moment, it is going to take a lot more efforts to get to that point. However the sport and leisure base is strong so that should give confidence that there is an underlying demand waiting to be tapped.

On balance I would say that Adelaide is meeting the challenge of modernity and liveability in a way that I can really identify with. For those that know their British cities it reminds me of Cardiff – with many of the amenities and lifestyle options of a capital city but in a manageable package. I lived happily in Cardiff for 10 years so I could certainly do the same in Adelaide and it was a great place for a visit.

If the on line chatter after Velo-city is anything to go by so did our many other visitors.

*There are numerous reflections and commentaries on the Velo-city conference itself on other sources. I have linked to a number of them from my Twitter account  @maynekevin and our ECF web site has a daily summary on our news pages here

Some of my other favourites are the Australian ones by Steven Fleming ; Bicycles network and ABC television.

Adelaide town hall welcomes velo-city

 

 

Torrens River Linear Park – Adelaide’s green cycling gem

Gallery

This gallery contains 13 photos.

“So what did you think of Adelaide?” will be the obvious question as we move on around Australia and then back home in a few weeks. Especially as I haven’t been here for nearly 30 years. The honest answer might be … Continue reading

Coffee and cycling? Bikes and baristas in Adelaide to kick off Velo-city 2014

Bikes and Baristas

My kind of place.

Off to the distinctly hip East End of Adelaide for a coffee at the “Bikes and baristas” Saturday event as part of Velo-fringe.

And joy – a bike jumble. Old bike bits, renovations, upgrades, fixies and lots of steel bikes.

Bikes and Baristas street Market Velo-city 2014 Adelaide

Sadly luggage limitations stop me cashing in. (And the watchful eye of my travelling companion). Indeed I might have made a killing with my personal collection of 1960s and 1970s European cycling rubbish had I but known.

But a very cool start to the week if you like that kind of thing. .And great coffee!

Bike sale Bikes and Baristas Adelaide Velo-city 2014 Bicycle jumble sale Velo-city 2014 Adelaide