Touring the Outback: Kata Tjuta and King’s Canyon

Australia is one of the oldest landscapes in the world; the tectonic movements that created many of central Australia’s rock formations occurred around 400 million years ago. To put that in context, the Himalayas were formed around 50 million years ago, and the youthful Alps are only about 30 million years old. At that time, tectonic movements far away created the forms of Uluru and nearby Kata Tjuta.

Kata Tjuta (which translates as ‘many heads‘), is a collection of 36 connected domes about 15 miles away from Uluru, and are the same red orange colour, caused by the oxidation of iron in the surface of the rock. After an early, pre-dawn start we went to a viewing point to watch my third consecutive sunrise, before heading to Kata Tjuta to do the ‘Valley of the Winds’ walk. The trail, in and around the gigantic lumps, was dry, pretty and very orange. It was nice to do some walking again and our guide taught us a bit about some of the plants in the area, like the mulga tree, used by aboriginal people to make spear tips (due to its poisonous qualities), hunting boomerangs and, antiseptic from the roots.

King’s Canyon, which we visited the following day was impressive in a different way. We did the 7km King’s Canyon Rim Walk, starting with ‘heart attack hill’ and were introduced to some of the plants that make the canyon one of the most biodiverse areas in Australia, and saw the fossils of wave forms and sea cucumbers in the rock. Descending into the canyon, we walked through the ‘Garden of Eden’, which contains species plants and insects that evolved with the dinosaurs.

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Bugs

Interesting and lovely as the various landscapes were, the highlight of the trip for me was, surprisingly, the camping. On the first night we camped in our section of a large private campsite used by several tour companies, with a campfire and a basic dining area. Things got a bit more remote on the second night, when we stayed at a much more remote camp on King’s Creek Station, which felt even more so when we were left there without transport. On our way to the camp, as we collected some wood for a campfire, our guide had hit his head getting a pretty bad concussion (he later needed five stitches in his head and lots and lots of pain killers), so we were driven to the camp by another guide before he left to take our guide to get medical attention. We started getting our dinner ready as it got dark, waiting for a replacement guide to arrive, and joking that we’d be helpless in an emergency with no transport, phone signal or any knowledge of the area. It did start to feel a bit like the beginning of a horror movie when I went over to the doorless, roofless, cold water shower. It’s always the one who leaves the group that gets murdered first… Returning from my shower feeling elated at surviving and from being clean, we had our dinner and sat around our fire until our new guide showed up and reassured us all.

Both nights I slept in the open in a swag, a kind of big canvas sleeping bag with a thin mattress and pillow inside, that you sleep in inside an actual sleeping bag. Although it was a bit chilly on the first night, it was surprisingly comfy and cosy, and best of all it let us look up at the stars as we went to sleep. With barely any artificial light and hundreds of miles from the nearest town, the sky was fantastic, reminding me quite how in the middle of nowhere I was.

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The group
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Touring the Outback: Uluru

After one night in Alice Springs, I was picked up for my trip to Uluru at 6am, and I saw my second consecutive sunrise from our four wheel drive tour bus as we made the [how far] drive to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. The vast majority of visitors to Alice Springs are there to see Uluru, and the handful or tour companies operating there offered broadly the same package; a three-day trip to see the three geological sites of Uluru, Kata Tjuta (or the Olgas) and King’s Canyon. As Alice Springs and Uluru are so closely associated, a lot of people assume they are close together, which I suppose they are in the context of outback Australia, but they are still a good five hour drive apart. To break up the drive, we stopped along the way at a few roadhouses, which are rural, remote service stations (sometimes doubling up as caravan parks), and in this part of the outback they all had some kind of additional purpose to entertain visitors. First was Stuart’s Well, a camel farm where for $7 you could ride a camel around the yard; second was Mount Ebenezer with a nice aboriginal art gallery; and finally Curtin Springs, which as well as having a small aviary and an emu scratching around, also had the distinction of being the last place to buy alcohol before Uluru.

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Camels at Stuart’s Well

The resort settlement near the Uluru National Park is called Yulara and has pretty much every kind of accommodation you can imagine, from fancy hotels to glamping sites, hostels to caravan parks, as well as its own airport. After a quick lunch at our campsite we picked up the rest of our group from the airport and headed to the Big Rock.

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Uluru in the late afternoon

The traditional owners of Uluru are the Anangu people, and it was to this group that official ownership of Uluru was returned in 1985, after 65 years of enforced ownership by the Australian government. One of the conditions of this return was that the land would be leased back to Parks Australia, so the park is now managed by a committee comprising members of both groups. The Visitor Information exhibition focuses seeks to educate tourists about the importance of the site in the Anangu people’s tjukurpa; the collection of folklore which makes up the history, education, religion and laws of the Anangu culture. Our guide told us more about this as we walked around parts of the rock, and he told us some of the stories associated with Uluru. Interestingly, the education structure of tjukurpa is layered; children are told the simple, most basic version of a given story, to teach them a simple lesson, and as they grow up they are given more details about that same story, teaching them additional lessons as they become more mature. This process continues throughout adult life as well, so that the oldest in society have the most knowledge and wisdom, are therefore treated with a great deal of respect. As non-Anangu, we were only allowed to be told the child-level stories, but it’s fascinating to imagine how much more detailed the stories could be.

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Cave in Uluru

Also fascinating was the tjukuritja, the physical evidence on the landscape that back up the tjukurpa stories. All of the stories in Anangu culture have a very specific location setting, so the culture is extremely closely tied with the land and the space that people traditionally lived in. As I understand it this applies to most if not all Aboriginal cultures, which must have made the European invasion even more traumatic and culturally destructive. But it was also interesting just to look at the rock up close and notice all of these physical irregularities. As well as the fact that the outback is not barren desert but covered in tough but green plants, the texture of Uluru was a huge surprise for me. In photos I had always thought it looked quite smooth, albeit with some soft creases, a bit like a pile of books covered in a table cloth. But there’s so much more going on than that; it’s covered in interesting things to look at, from round hollows and black trails left by waterfalls in the wet season, to strata lines to wave-form caves swept out by the wind. There are valleys where you can walk into the rock, caves where you can walk under it, and I only saw a small section of it. For what is essentially just a big bit of rock, there’s a lot to look at.

Sadly, however, some people are not content just to look. When the land was given back to the Anangu people in 1985, one of the other conditions was that visitors would still be permitted to climb the rock as they pleased. This is problematic for three reasons. First, it causes environmental damage, not just in the form of erosion from thousands of footprints (a pale scar is already visible where the red top layer has been worn away to reveal the grey rock underneath; this will take thousands of years to heal), but also water contamination; for some reason people urinate (and worse) on the rock while walking up, and when it rains everything on Uluru is washed down ending up in the waterholes for miles and miles around, sometimes making them undrinkable for animals. Secondly, more than 30 people have died and many more have been injured doing this walk; as well as placing a burden on the Park authorities to rescue people, the Anangu people consider themselves personally responsible for the well-being of visitors, so it causes them unnecessary distress when accidents inevitably happen.

Finally, and most importantly, it is incredibly disrespectful to the Anangu people to climb Uluru. Not only is the whole area of extremely high religious significance, climbing the rock itself is part of a specific Anangu ritual; Anangu people do not climb it unless taking part in this ceremony. Treating such a serious and spiritually important place as a jolly jaunt to get a nice photo is akin to stomping around a cathedral, laughing, shouting and taking photos during a service. And it’s worse because, although they ask people not to, the Anangu have no choice, under the terms of the 1985 agreement, but to allow people to do it.

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People walking up Uluru

Sadly, despite the explanation in the Visitor’s Centre, and the sign at the base of the rock where the climb begins, thousands of people still climb up Uluru every year. Whether through ignorance or pig-headedness I don’t know, but it broke my heart a bit

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Uluru at sunrise

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The Ghan: Adelaide to Alice Springs

Finally completed in 2004, the Ghan runs 1851 miles from Adelaide to Darwin, bisecting the country from South to North. Composed of 44 carriages, the train was over a kilometre in length and had over 50 staff and more than 350 passengers on board. For the first leg of the journey I left at 1:00pm on Sunday, and would arrive just over 24 hours later in Alice Springs.

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The Ghan in Adelaide

While the Overland was elderly in age range, the Ghan was more middle aged, mostly made up of couples in their 50s and early 60s; primarily Australian empty nesters and recent retirees taking some time to explore their extensive backyard. In the Red Class carriage (that’s the cheap seats) at the back of the train we had large, sturdy seats with lots of leg room, two toilets and a shower. Although it was fully booked, it was comfortable and civilised with plenty of space. The next carriage was the cafe, and beyond that the forbidden domain of Gold and Premium classes, the ones who got beds.

Sitting in the cafe car I gazed out of the window and eavesdropped on the two couples at the table opposite. In their fifties, all moustaches, beer bellies and bad dye jobs, they were playing a ‘true or false’ travel game, one of the women reading out a possible fact for the rest to ruminate on, and veering off on wild tangents. I drank my tea and looked at the scenery, listening to them raucously discussing the difference between raisins and sultanas, whether dolphins sleep with one eye open, and whether the toilet flushes in the opposite direction in the northern hemisphere. After a question about Einstein they moved on to films;

“What was that one about the janitor at the University, who gets all clever…”

“Yeah, with that Matt Damon and Robin Williams is the psychologist. Keith, what was it called…?”

“The Dead Poets Society”

“Yes, that’s the one, the Dead Poets Society. Great movie.”

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South Australia

Coming out of Adelaide we quickly passed through the city fringes and into farmland dotted with a few small vineyards. It was green but quite thirsty looking, very flat and crisscrossed with sandy tracks. The landscape stayed the same until sunset came not long after we left Port Augusta. After a few hours eating and reading I settled down to get some sleep, and was just dozing off at 11:30pm when there was a huge crash and I felt one side of the train come off the tracks before skidding to a halt. After a few minutes the train manager came in to explain; “Don’t worry folks. We’ve just hit a kangaroo, that’s all!” There was no serious damage to the train (although the same cannot be said for the kangaroo) and before long we were moving again and I tried again to get to sleep. When overnight train journeys are written about, going to sleep is usually described in terms of being lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking motion, or something like that, and I think it’s fair to say that these descriptions invariably come from a writer who is travelling in a compartment with, crucially, a bed. Getting to sleep in the cheap seats is less about being lulled or rocked and more about wriggling around until you find a mildly comfortable position and trying your best not to move out of it. But, the seats were bigger and better than some I’ve been in, and I managed to sleep.

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Sunset at Port Augusta

Central Australia, as I would soon find out, is a land of sunrises and I experience my first at Marla, about a hundred miles south of the Northern Territory border. The train had stopped a few hours before dawn and when I stumbled outside there was a cosy fire burning on the platform to keep us warm as we watched the sun rise over the cattle station. The sky continued to lighten as we got back on the train and started moving again, revealing a new, more colourful landscape; during the night we had reached the Red Centre.

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Firelight at Marla
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Sunrise at Marla

The ground in this part of the country is, as you’d expect, a rusty terracotta orange, but I was surprised to find that I couldn’t see as much of it as I had expected. This was because most of it was covered with a scattering of low shrubs and dry trees, so the view was much greener than what I had in my mind. I was expecting a desert, with no life at all, which really makes no sense when I thought about it, as this land has been supporting the lives of animals and people (albeit not that many of them) for thousands of years. It was also lumpier than I had imagined. Not hilly exactly, but not mirror flat like the Canadian plains, where you can almost see the curvature of the earth. There were slopes, low rock formations, the odd road and crossing; for an empty land of nothingness, there was plenty to look at .

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The Red Centre

We approached Alice Springs at about 2:00pm, passing through the dramatic Heavitree Gap in the steep and rocky MacDonnell Ranges. As we approached the station my trivia-loving friends were discussing the acting achievements of Mel Gibson. “Apocalypto was good but the one about the Scottish fella’s my favourite. What a story, all about freedom and that. Who was it he played? That’s right, that Bruce Wallace, what a character”.

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Adelaide: it rained

Adelaide is in South Australia, the driest state in the driest continent on earth. Predictable then that it rained every day that I was there. Not impressive rain either, but a persistent, fine rain that gets into your pockets and shoes and leaves you feeling like a damp old flannel.

At least in part because of the weather, it felt quite English and familiar, and smaller than a city of 1.3 million people usually would. Like Manchester or Leeds it was pleasant but not particularly photogenic (at least in the rain), with a few museums, some nice shops, and a pedestrianised shopping street. Also like these cities there wasn’t really enough to do to fill five days and nights, especially in the rain, but I amused myself flitting between cafes; luckily Adelaide, like Melbourne, is a highly caffeinated city with plenty of good spots for coffee and cake. Between cafes I wandered around trying to avoid the showers, ducking into shops including the Map Shop, and old school shop selling, as you may have guessed, maps, of all sizes and uses. After a quick discussion with the owner, a guy in his 50’s with an encyclopedic knowledge of maps, guide books, and map emporia of the world, I now know where to find the best map shop in Brighton and in the whole of the UK, to fulfil all of my mapping needs in the future. I also got a road atlas of the Kimberley region of north east Australia, which I will be driving through soon.

Fortunately I didn’t have to entertain myself for the whole time, as I had two friends in the city, Jamie and Steve, who I had met a few years ago when I was living in Canada. I met up with them several times to catch up and to get some pointers on how to fill my time, and they showed me around some of the city’s eating and drinking establishments. On one day I took a drive with Jamie out to Hahndorf, a peculiar town about half an hour’s drive away from Adelaide city centre. Originally settled by German immigrants, the town wears its heritage with a huge amount of pride, with pubs and restaurants selling German beer and food, German bakeries, German deli’s, German gift shops. It was all very kitsch but very pretty (between the showers) and I had a very nice Flammkuche for lunch. That afternoon, as the sun came out briefly, we headed to Glenelg, a quiet seaside suburb with the slightly left behind feeling of Worthing or Eastbourne. Although it’s busy and popular in the summer, at this time of year is was deserted, with a tired looking water park on the seafront and a bare pier.

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Glenelg pier

Back in the city I went to the Central Market, a large covered food market on the edge of China Town, visited the Art Gallery of South Australia and the South Australian Museum next door, and walked through the University of Adelaide campus. Probably because I’ve spent much of my adult life on University campuses, I felt very at home wandering around there. It had the same kind of buildings – a mixture of 1930’s civic grandness, 1960’s concrete and pebbledash, and modern glass and chrome – and the same signposts and clearly labelled buildings. I could almost have been in the UK, except for the pelicans casually swimming around on the river.

On my final morning in Adelaide I met my friend Jamie for breakfast at a cafe on the edge of the city centre. It was a glorious sunny morning and we sat on the pavement, looking out towards the park, sun in our eyes. As we had a last walk around before heading to the station, I had to admit it is a much more attractive city when the sun’s out.

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Melbourne to Adelaide: the Overland

Long distance trains can be a bit like casinos; the image is a romantic one, all mid-century decadence and glamourous people sipping martinis, but the reality is of faded former glory, threadbare furnishings and elderly people. And so it was on my ten-hour journey on the Overland from Melbourne to Adelaide.

Run by Great Southern Rail, the ‘luxury’ passenger enterprise that also runs the Indian Pacific and the Ghan lines which bisect the country, the Overland is the shortest and least celebrated of the three lines. The 828km of track trundles through the flat, rural farmland of Victoria and South Australia, passing through a handful of small towns on the way.

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Boarding the Overland in Melbourne

The vast majority of passengers were in the 65 to 80 age bracket, primarily residents of Adelaide spending a few days in the bright lights of Melbourne. Waiting to depart from Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station at 8:00am, I was surrounded by the bubbly chatter of couples reuniting with people they had met on the journey there are few days earlier, reviewing their hotels and remarking how cold it had been. As the conductor came on the loudspeaker there was a solemn hush as everyone listened attentively to the intricately detailed instructions of how to open the carriage doors and lock the toilet door, and it felt like being on a coach tour as my fellow passengers chuckled at the conductor’s jokes.

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View from the train

 

As soon as I got on the train I was a world away from the grungy, hipster domain of the under 30’s that I had been used to in Melbourne, and I loved it immediately. I listened to the life stories of my neighbours, enjoying the way their stories meandered along without trying to be funny or particularly entertaining, and I remembered what Bill Bryson observed about train travel when he wrote about his journey on the Indian Pacific. He said that long train journeys are blissful preparation for one’s later years, when you learn the joys of elderly pursuits like gazing at the scenery, dozing, and thinking about nothing in particular, and he was quite right; I spent all day doing pretty much nothing but reading, eating, sitting and snoozing, and enjoyed myself thoroughly. If this is what retirement is like, I can’t wait.

Living in Melbourne

When I told my friends in Melbourne that I’d be arriving there in late February, a common reaction was that it’s a shame that I’d be missing most of the summer. Summer is when stuff happens, I was told, when the weather’s good and there’s a lot going on. I joked that I probably couldn’t handle Australian summer, and that the temperature of winter down under would probably about the same as the average English summer. And I wasn’t much wrong.

Autumn in Melbourne is like a movie version of autumn; autumn as it should be, without the sludgy leaf mulch and wind of autumn at home. When they were building cities like Melbourne, the British transplanted hundreds of oak, ash and other European trees, so the foliage is familiar, but it’s drier and warmer so the leaves turn a more intense colour and the leaves stay crunchy when they fall. It rains sometimes, and it is a bit breezy, but the norm at this time of year is crisp, fresh air, bright, clear skies, and temperatures staying in double digits.

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The city from Treasury Gardens

Melbourne in general is a bit like being in a film. London lite; less frenetic, less sprawling. My walk to work takes me through city gardens modeled on Hyde Park, along the Yarra River and across Sandridge Bridge, and I barely ever get stuck in crowds or behind slow people dragging their feet. Trying to walk somewhere briskly at rush hour in London makes me want to elbow people out of the way, and makes me feel stressed even if I’m not running late; in Melbourne it’s quite relaxing. I’m not saying it’s a utopia – public transport is usually delayed, some parts are spectacularly ugly, property prices are high and rising – but it does have the feel of a city that knows how to enjoy life.

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The walk to work along the Yarra River

There’s a bewildering amount going on in Melbourne, even in the cooler months; food festivals, music and theatre, museums and culture, film festivals, nightlife. And sport, in a big way. Think about this statistic for a second; the Australian Football League – that’s Aussie rules rather than soccer – attracts the fourth biggest spectatorship of any league in the world. Of all the internationally popular sports, all the major games in the world, a sport which is only played in, and barely known outside of, a country of 23 million people, is only beaten in in-person viewing numbers by three other sports. Consider also that game is only really popular in the southern part of the country (Queensland and New South Wales are all about rugby), and that half of the eighteen teams in the AFL are based in Melbourne. Conclusion: people in Melbourne are really into their footy. I experienced this in May when I went to the Melbourne Cricket Ground to see the Sydney Swans play the Hawthorn Hawks, after some enthusiastic tutoring from my work colleagues. It’s essentially like an anarchic version of rugby without the scrums, and you can more or less do whatever you want. As if to highlight a chaotic feel of it, when the ball goes out of bounds, instead of being given to the opposing team the linesman chucks it back into play backwards over his head. It all makes for a fast paced game without much stop-starting and lots and lots of running, which makes it easy to get into. Added to the fact that the crowd was much more diverse in all senses (age, gender, ethnicity) than a football game in the UK, it all made for a very enjoyable time.

What I like so much about all of this, is that Melbourne is essentially an inward-looking city. It doesn’t get the international attention that Sydney does, and so you get the feeling that, rather than being designed to bring visitors into the city, all of these events and festivals are there for the benefit of Melbournians themselves. If other people want to come and enjoy it then great, they’re very welcome, but there is enough of an audience in the city and its suburbs to sustain an endless array of culture and entertainment regardless. It’s a kind of quiet self-confidence, a humble satisfaction, and a real willingness to enjoy life, that makes Melbourne an excellent city to live in.

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Flinders Street Station

But, my work contract is ending, the temperatures are dropping and it’s all beginning to feel a bit much like real life for my liking. Melbourne has become home, to a certain degree, and I’ve become lazy; I’ve stopped exploring and trying new things.

Perfect timing then for a new trip, to see what else Australia has to offer. Time for some trains.

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Mekbourne from Princes Bridge

Melbourne Yums

There’s a lot to like about Melbourne, but the highlight for me is definitely the food. From market stalls and delis to cafes and restaurants, Melbourne is all about eating, cooking, talking and generally thinking about food. When Bill Bryson wrote about Melbourne in his book Down Under, the food scene here didn’t get so much as a mention, but at some point in the intervening 15 years Melbourne underwent what I have seen referred to as a ‘food revolution’. The restaurant scene has exploded at all levels, and Melbourne is now home to one of the top fifty restaurants in the world. Last year, when his restaurant in Bray was closed for refurbishment, Heston Blumenthal even moved the Fat Duck to Melbourne for six months.

But it’s not just a question of fine dining. In a city built on immigration, from Chinese and English in the 19th Century, to Greek and Italian in the 1950’s (and many other nationalities besides), people here seem to maintain their connection to their culture primarily through food, which is clear both in the range of restaurants and in the market stalls. Add to this the massive popularity of gastro cookery TV shows like Masterchef, and you get an audience that is both knowledgeable of many cuisines, and au fait with the ‘cheffy’ techniques and trends of haute cuisine. It seems like all Melbournians, not just the ones that can afford Michelin star quality, have a big appetite and a discerning palate, so the standard of food at even the most affordable eateries is constantly challenged and anything not up to scratch doesn’t last.

Which brings me to my favourite thing about the food here; there is no place for big restaurant chains. Yes, there are plenty of McDonalds and Hungry Jacks (that’s Burger King to the rest of the world), but in terms of ‘proper’ restaurants, there’s a noticeable absence of the mid-range, homogenous places that Brits and Americans seem to love so much. The Pizza Expresses, the Harvesters, and the Wagamamas of the world just don’t seem to have a market in Melbourne because there are so many other places to go where for the same money you can get something fresher, more interesting and just better.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of what Melbourne has to offer, but these are a few of my highlights.

Around Smith Street

Smith Street, in the grungy, formerly industrial suburbs of Collingwood, is full of repurposed factories, shabby chic (or just shabby) bars, and trendy boutique cafes. It’s a hipster haven, where you’re more likely to get your food served on a chopping board or in a plastic mesh tray than a china plate, but it’s also relaxed with lots of options. There are some great places for a lazy brunch (South of Johnston, Arcadia) or a gourmet burger (Mr Scruff’s), but my highlight is Jim’s Greek Tavern. Full of character with squeezed in tables and intense middle-aged waiters, it’s a great place for a long evening catching up with friends.

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Arcadia café, courtesy of Alannah Schofield

 

Lygon Street

The traditionally Italian area around Lygon Street offers, as you might expect, some pretty good pizza and pasta. At Criniti’s you have the option of ordering pizza by the metre, which is laid out along the length of your table on a stand. It’s a bit of a gimmick but the pizza is delicious, and the range and quality of toppings is pretty incredible. If you’re wondering, 1.5 metres of pizza between four people is a lot of pizza. Next door is Yo Chi, a self service frozen yoghurt shop where the toppings are the main event.

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Criniti’s, courtesy of Louisa McKenzie

 

Asian Food

I’ve mentioned Chinatown before, but there’s more to Melbourne’s Asian food scene than traditional dumplings. There’s plenty of traditional places but also some really interesting fusion places like Rice Paper Scissors with it’s great line of southeast Asian tapas-style dishes. Chin Chin is generally regarded as Melbourne’s best mid-range restaurant, and its Korean sister restaurant Kong BBQ does some reeeealllly good barbeque meat. As for street food, sushi is everywhere and is sold in fresh 6-inch rolls (cheaper and much more appetising than a sad ‘platter’ from M&S), and Chinese-influenced Australian invention dim sims are worth a go too.