Monday, February 20, 2006 - Melbourne and Phillip Island

Dean started on morning shift today, so he had to drop us off at the Metlink before 7:00 a.m. We were moving slow and had to be pushed out the door, but I think Dean still made it to work on time, barely. Sorry, Dean! Catherine and Dean are the best hosts ever. We really appreciate their hospitality, and we couldn't have had a better stay.

Explorer's Hotel is just across Spencer Street from Southern Cross Station, in the heart of Melbourne's central business district. By 8:30 we'd dropped off our luggage in the hotel's locked storage room and gone for coffee. When we checked back at 9:30, they already had a room ready and let us go ahead and check in. It was a great location and an excellent value at AU$90 (US$66). It was either check in way early or not until midnight when we returned from our Phillip Island tour, so we were glad to get that taken care of.

Just around the corner from Explorer's Hotel is the Rialto Tower, purportedly the tallest office building in the Southern Hemisphere, so of course we had to visit. The Rialto is 253 meters (830 feet) tall, constituting 63 floors. The Melbourne Observation Deck is located on the 55th floor, at 234 meters (768 feet). The Observation Deck opens at 10:00 a.m., and we were among the first up the elevator. It was overcast this morning, but the views were still great, and we got some nice photos of the CBD and the bay.

Melbourne's Central Tower is almost identical to the BellSouth building in Nashville. Both are known by locals as the "Batman building."

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Central Tower a/k/a Batman Building

Rialto Tower is the tallest office building in the Southern Hemisphere, yet we found ourselves looking up at the Eureka Tower. Still under construction, the Eureka Tower is going to be the tallest residential building in the hemisphere, at least for a brief time, until the Q1 tower in Australia surpasses it.

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Eureka Tower

11:20 a.m. Autopia Tours picked us up at a predetermined intersection, and we were on our way to Phillip Island, two hours southeast of Melbourne. Adam was our tour guide today.

First non-bathroom stop of the tour, Wildlife Wonderland. Out front is the second largest Aboriginal mural in the world, which is painted on a gigantic concrete earthworm. (The largest such mural is on the side of a Qantas jumbo jet.) Before exploring, we had lunch. This was Tom's second Aussie burger, and they were both pretty blah, but at least they beat the horrible burgers of Latin America. I had a ham sandwich with margarine and mayo, neither being a preferred topping of mine. Aussies are obsessed with margarine. They spread it on every piece of bread, regardless of what else is being put on it. I'm not offended by margarine; I just find it optional rather than required.

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Aboriginal mural, Wildlife Wonderland

Wildlife Wonderland takes in wombat orphans after their moms have been killed by cars. The wombat moms absorb the impact of the collision with their steel-hard backs, allowing the babies to survive in mama's pouch. We got to pet a wombat!

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Wombat orphan

Next we entered the kangaroo enclosure and petted them, too. They were mostly eastern gray kangaroos. With their powerful tails and strong hind legs, these 'roos can jump up to 11 meters (36 feet) in length. They live up to seven years in the wild and up to 14 years in captivity. Tom made friends with a cute kangaroo youth.

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A tender moment

Wildlife Wonderland also has koalas, emus, lyrebirds, blue-tongued lizards, and more. It's a good place to get up close to the animals.

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Koala close-up

Back on the bus, we continued over the bridge to Phillip Island, known for its outstanding seascapes and the famous evening parade of the little fairy penguins. We took a walk/wade at Woolamai Beach, a gorgeous beach with pounding surf. If we chose to, we could have swam here, but besides the strong undertow and big waves, the water was cold! No one in our group opted to swim.

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Woolamai Beach

At Seal Rock and Nobbies we strolled along the boardwalk and searched for penguins nesting underneath. Several times Tom and I laid down on the walkway and contorted ourselves for a look below. Our efforts were rewarded. We saw heaps of 'em. Even with binoculars, though, we didn't see anything that could be definitively identified as a seal, they were so far away.

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Fairy penguins, Phillip Island

For "tea" we stopped in picturesque little Cowes, the largest town on Phillip Island. The Aussies do pizza well. Just be careful not to accidentally order one with odd toppings, such as egg or clams. In spite of the huge warning sign we'd seen earlier in the day, Tom fed a lone seagull a French fry. Moments later there were many seagulls. We slowly backed away from the area, pretending we had no idea why a flock of seagulls had suddenly appeared.

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View of Cowes

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You've been warned

Finally we made our way to the Phillip Island Nature Park, home of the Penguin Parade, Australia's second most popular tourist attraction, after Uluru. A hundred years ago, penguins were found all along the southern coast of Australia, but traffic, development, and predators have forced most of the penguins to adapt and move to coastal islands. Adam got us there early, and we positioned ourselves on the beach in prime penguin-viewing position. The beach is roped off to protect the penguin habitat, and people are just allowed in authorized areas. Photography is not permitted, but we have plenty of penguin pics from earlier in the day.

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Cute little penguin

The fairy penguins living here are the smallest penguins in the world. Just a foot tall and weighing only one kilo, the penguins spend up to three weeks at a time feeding at sea before coming home to nest. Crossing the beach to their sand-dune burrows, located up to a kilometer and a half inland, is their most vulnerable time. Filled with fear, the penguins wait until dark and gather in groups at the water's edge, building up enough courage to make a run for it. Any little thing will scare the waiting penguins and send them darting back to the safety of the water until they calm down enough to try again.

It grew colder and colder and windier and windier as the sun set and we awaited our little friends. Finally, a few little penguin heads started emerging from the surf. It took a while, but finally a group would gather, and the fat little fairies would make a break for it. One group beginning to cross the beach was startled by a small bird landing several meters away. The whole bunch of them turned and ran. The Penguin Parade was great fun. The little penguins waddled so close to us we could have reached out and grabbed one. We saw several "parades" before we had to return to the bus at 9:30.

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Fat little fairy penguin

We didn't get back to the Explorer's Inn in Melbourne until midnight, and we stayed up even later watching satellite TV and enjoying our nice room.

 

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