Au Pair Life: Nerf Gun Wars, Birthday Parties and Swimming Like Mermaids

Being an au pair is a great example of how travelling with someone can make a big difference to your trip. If I had been travelling solo I don’t think I ever would have thought of au pairing, but because of Joey’s background working with kids we had considered it, even before leaving the UK, as a great way for us to work in Australia and I’m so glad we did.

How au pairing works can be down to the family and what specifically they are looking for but generally it allows you to live with a family, sometimes in the home, sometimes in a pool house/granny flat situation on the property, in exchange for work plus an extra payment on top. This extra payment normally isn’t much as the bulk of your wage technically goes to covering your bed and board, yet it is enough to be able to get out and about and do fun things on your days off. Where this situation works great for us as a couple is we have the advantage that one of us can be around for the kids while the other works. In our case that was me. I ended up working at a local pub, which I had a lot of fun at and was casual enough that I could still help out with the kids. If you are solo you may still be able to work a weekend or evening job to top up funds as long as it doesn’t interfere with the family’s schedule so it is a great way to save to continue travelling.

We found Claire and Josh by simply putting up an ad with a bit about ourselves on a facebook group for connecting au pairs and families. They messaged us early on in the trip and seemed to be just putting feelers out for lining up someone in the future so it was a pleasant surprise when, during our farm work, they messaged again looking for a more definite date. It seemed like fate that every time we were wondering where to turn next on our trip a message from them came through solving all our problems. They were friendly and open about themselves and their family and from the beginning it felt like the right fit.

I remember driving to Tocumwal feeling slightly nervous at how I would be around kids. I love kids but I had never been solely responsible for one before. I had no doubt I would have fun with them, it was the taking care of them, the practical stuff, knowing what was wrong and right for that age and being able to tell them no from time to time or calm a tantrum down that I was nervous about. Joey had my back though and I would soon discover that you figure out a lot of that as you go along; things kind of just fell into place and where I didn’t know what to do or how to handle something Joey could help.

On our first day we arrived early evening and got to meet the kids as they were getting ready for bed. We would be looking after Claire and Josh’s three children, Eliza (7 years old), Lachy (6 years old) and Lincoln (4 years old). Three would be a handful at times but was also where working as a couple meant we could tag team who we looked after or even take a break if it got a bit much. On that first night though I felt thrown in the deep end as I ended up reading the three kids multiple stories as Eliza climbed on my back hugging me. At least they seemed to like me straight away!

And I liked them straight away. Eliza is a typical girly girl and loves all things make-up and hair and also enjoys bossing her younger brothers around. Lachy practically lives outside, comes home with bugs in his bag he collected from school and loves David Attenborough and animal facts. We bonded over dinosaur knowledge too as he reminds me a little of myself when I was younger. Linc loves paw patrol, fire trucks and police cars. He is a strong willed little guy but he’s also easy to get laughing.

Being a part of family life meant routine, something we hadn’t experienced much on the trip so far, so rather than take you through every normal day I thought it would be nice to share my favourite memories of our time in Tocumwal with the family.

  • Getting cake and birthday hats for each of our birthdays, all a part of being made to feel welcome.
  • Also getting to celebrate Lachy’s and Josh’s birthdays too!

  • Plus helping Claire to decorate the cake!

  • Blasting music and dancing with Eliza, being silly to make her laugh or trying out different moves.

  • Epic nerf gun battles!
  • Linc telling Joey he had shot his girlfriend after I played dead from a nerf gun bullet then, after Joey saying he would need to find a new girlfriend, Linc reassuring him that he was “Just tricking you, Joey.”

  • Taking the kids to the local pool and playing mermaid games – no one ever wanted to get out at the end of the day, including me!
  • Getting to meet a couple of previous au pairs who came back for a visit, sharing travel tips and ending up sitting under the verandah enjoying the rain and lightning during a massive storm.

  • Getting a job at a local pub and getting to meet new people and join a friendly team. The pub had just reopened under new management so it was also a great experience to see it grow and develop over the time I was there.
  • Beach days by the Murray river, floating in the cool water and sun-baking on the sand.

  • Drawing dinosaurs with Lachy and always being amazed at how many facts he knew.

  • Coming home from work to find them watching Dr Dolittle and finding the guinea pig dancing and singing hilarious, loving the fact I knew it and did the dance too.
  • Joey shouting out hello to every little thing we passed, just being silly but making the kids squeal with laughter.

  • Not being able to walk out the door to work without the kids running at me with open arms, wanting hugs.
  • Visiting Richglen, a beautiful cafe that also sells homemade olive oil, jams, chutneys, salad dressings and all sorts. I took full advantage of as many taste testers as I could and we lost track of time enjoying a cold drink in the garden full of flowers, herbs and sculptures made of recycled things.

  • Taking walks through the bush.
  • Making ice lollies out of fresh squeezed orange juice and laughing as we tried to get a selfie altogether eating them but the kids had different ideas.

  • Building Lego creations with Linc.
  • Reading with them all, helping Lachy progress with his school reading and especially reading bedtime stories. I even made up their own story about Princess Eliza and her two brothers and the adventures they got up to, which they loved!

  • Taking the kids to pick out an item each to donate to the firefighters to help in anyway we could while the bushfire crisis was ongoing.

  • Baking cookies, cakes and making a ginger bread house, which always resulted in mostly trying to make sure most of the icing went on the cakes and not in their
  • mouths!

  • Browsing the local market when it came to town, resisting stocking up on lots of homemade goodies and cheap books!
  • Helping Elfis the Christmas elf cause mischief around the house and seeing how excited the kids were to check out his latest prank.

  • Being a part of these three amazing kids lives even for a short amount of time, getting to see them through the end of one school term and the beginning of another, having the summer to go on adventures and have lots of fun and joining in the excitement of Christmas. It has been an experience I will never forget and was more special than any job I could have imagined doing here in Australia.

P.S. I would like to say Linc was super sad we were leaving but I think he was more grumpy about having a photo taken! Bless him!

Wine, Beaches and More Wine

After leaving our farm position we had a couple of weeks before our next opportunity working as au pairs in a small town called Tocumwal, three hours north of Melbourne. After looking into what we could do along the way we decided Kangaroo Island seemed right up our street. It is hailed as one of the best places in Australia to see wildlife so it seemed perfect for us. The ferry departs from Cape Jervis so we decided to take our time travelling there and stop off at a few places along the way.

Having not really experienced the beaches in Adelaide yet we spent the first few days after leaving the farm hanging out near Glenelg beach. The weather still wasn’t quite sunbathing standard yet but we enjoyed nosing around the shops, the small museum above the information centre that explained the history of Glenelg and how it is considered the oldest European settlement on mainland South Australia and spent the rest of our day sipping a cider and a beer, watching the world go by. It was nice to have a little extra time in Adelaide area but it wasn’t a place that grabbed us so we weren’t too sad to be moving on.

From here our next stop was the McClaren Vale, one of the best wine regions in South Australia. Our campsite was really pretty, an alley of trees leading to a secluded green spot amongst the fields of grapes. Almost immediately we ventured out to some of the local winerys. Within walking distance were two recommended ones, Oxenberry Farm Wines and Serafino. Both offered free tastings and funnily enough I preferred the wines at the first while Joey preferred the wines at the second. They might have only been small tasters but you could easily get tipsy from hopping from one winery to the other and though the tasters were little more than a sip or two for each wine there would be five or six tasters per winery so it never felt like your cup ran dry. At Serifino we decided to grab a full glass each though to truly relax and savour our favourite wines while looking out across the nearby pond.

The next day we headed to d’Arenberg Cube, a winery that is as much an art piece as a vineyard. The building is designed to look like a Rubik’s cube, representing the puzzle that is wine making. Corner balconies jut out, like the Rubik’s cube in motion, allowing for spectacular views of the rolling hills and grape fields for miles around. The winery has connections with art in other ways too and was currently showcasing a Picasso art collection. On the first floor there is also an art gallery full of weird and whacky sculptures from legs dangling from the ceiling to old wind up wooden fair ground toys. There was also a room featuring projections on every wall that showed just as whacky annimations with interesting names such as The Laughing Magpie and The Broken Fishplate. We couldn’t get our heads round it but took it to just be part of this eccentric aesthetic however when we got up to the top floor where the tastings are held we learnt the true meaning behind the animations. Each one was representing the wines on offer, which had the same unique names. We went for the classic tasting options but rotated in a Reisling to try too as it is a wine we enjoy back home and were curious what it would be like in Australia. The reds were a bit too dry for me but right up Joey’ s street. The white wines were fruity, crisp and delicious. Afterwards we grabbed a drink in the cafe to continue enjoying the laid back atmosphere and amazing views.

We had thought to end up there for most of the day but finished earlier than we thought and so decided to check out the nearby town and beach front. I imagined a beachfront pavilion with shops to explore and cafes to while away some time in but it turned out to be just the beach and one expensive restaurant. We didn’t really mind though as the beach was a really pretty spot and not too busy. Part of the joy of having the van with us meant that after a short walk to check it out we headed back to the van, changed into shorts, grabbed our camp chairs, some snacks and a drink to soak up the sun for the rest of the afternoon.

Being in no rush to get to our next campsite we returned to the beach in the morning and this time I even braved the water – cold but refreshing! We had a picnic lunch on the beach then set off for our last stop before Kangaroo Island. Joey had discovered a really cool campsiteto that wasn’t too far from the ferry port called Rapid Bay. It was cheap at just $9 per person per night and we got to park up right on the beach. This was what we had dreamed of when imagining our life in the van, being parked up so close to the beach we could take a dip in the water, walk along the sand to see the jetty at one end and the cave at the other then take just a few steps to our camp chairs to sunbathe the rest of the afternoon away. It was probably our favourite campsite yet.

Our ferry was departing in the afternoon the next day so again there was no rush and we enjoyed another swim and walk along the beach before packing up to go. It was only a short drive to the ferry port and super easy to get checked in and board the ferry. Joey drove on and any other passengers have to board on foot so I met him on board once the van was loaded on. It was just 45 minutes to Kangaroo Island and as we set off towards our campsite we were blown away by the beauty of this island and immediately knew we had made the right choice in going there. We would have plenty to see and explore over the next five days.

150 Days On The Road – Expectations vs. Reality

Strictly speaking not all 150 days were spent on the road. Some of those days were spent on boats, in aeroplanes, on beaches, on farms, riding bikes, travelling by foot, working in fields, swimming in oceans or swimming pools and a whole load of other places and ways to travel in between. But it makes for a catchy title and it is true that we have now been away from home for over 150 days.

This is the longest either myself or Joey has been away for and yet, though we have moments of missing home, friends and family, surprisingly neither of us feels ready for the trip to end yet. We’ve found that where the working holiday visa works really well for us is being able to stop and work when we are craving stability and move on when we are getting itchy feet again. In that respect the WHV has been what we expected and hoped for but in pretty much every other way it has not gone how I imagined it would at all. As someone who often has high expectations, a fantasy version of how I imagine everything will fall into place perfectly, it has been a steep learning curve to be more flexible and accept that I can only make decisions based on my current situation. In fact I feel like I’m still learning that there is no place for regrets on this trip, that I need to live in the present and accept that I can only make decisions for the next steps based on my current situation. That being said, I thought for 150 days I would run you through my expectations for this trip and what it has been like in reality.

Expectation: Australia is expensive.

Reality: Australia is expensive.

There are plenty of ways to keep costs down in Australia from free campsites, house sitting, work aways, cooking cheap meals for yourself and other tips and tricks but it is unavoidable that Australia is an expensive place to travel. There were definitely points of this trip where we could have travelled smarter or cheaper but I also know we have spent money on some amazing experiences that I wouldn’t change for the world, as well as finding plenty of free ones too. However, owning a vehicle, especially a camper van, has been the main expense. I didn’t expect so many repairs, I wasn’t adequately prepared for the costs of rego and insurance and general set up and I definitely underestimated not so much the price of fuel but just how often we would have to fill up because of the distances travelled. If you think you’ve saved enough for Australia, save more.

Expectation: We’ll find farm work easily and find something cool and unique.

Reality: Lots of terrible Gumtree ads, more experience needed than we thought and cool, unique places not being what they seemed at first.

There are plenty of ways to find farm work in Australia but finding something that doesn’t sound dodgey, isn’t impossible to get to or doesnt require farm experience was harder than we expected. We thought we had hit the jackpot when we got a position in the Adelaide Hills on a beautiful farm less than an hour from the city but the reality of being the only two workers there meant it still felt isolated. We had wanted to find something different from fruit picking if possible but at least fruit picking with other backpackers gives you a sense of community we felt was missing from our experience. Basically it had all looked picturesque and too good to be true on the surface and definitely didn’t live up to expectations. However I still enjoyed working outside, having time off to explore the local area and learning some new skills.

Expectation: We will spend the majority of our time on the East Coast.

Reality: Halfway through our visa and we haven’t even reached the East Coast yet.

The plan was always to travel through central Australia really quickly and end up working and spending the most time on the East Coast, when we accepted the farm work and backtracked to Adelaide this changed everything. The downside of this is we feel we have met less backpackers on the road than we thought we would as we have been travelling less popular routes. On the plus side we have been travelling less popular routes. We would never have ended up on Kangaroo Island if we hadn’t been looking for a way to fill our time being farm work and au-pairing. I never imagined that the little town of Hahndorf we admired while passing through on our way to the Red Centre would be somewhere we could pop into for lunch on our days off from the farm. At times it feels like we still have so much left to see of this vast country and other times it feels like we have already seen way more than we expected.

Expectation: We’ll meet lots of other backpackers in campervans.

Reality: Not so much.

We’ve met and seen plenty of grey nomads (retiree Australians with fancy campers and trailers) but not so much other backpackers. Maybe this is due to the places we’ve travelled to so far and maybe this is due to staying on paid campsites more often than we thought we would. It could also be the season we are travelling certain areas in. Whatever the reason we are often left thinking where are all the backpackers? Sometimes we like the time to ourselves and sometimes we crave company. Our recent trip to The Grampians did change things though when we got chatting to an Ozzy bloke traveling with his girlfriend who turned out to be from the UK, who in turn also got chatting to another van life couple from the UK. We spent a couple of nights swapping stories round the campfire and one very adventurous hike together and it did wonders for lifting our spirits.

Expectation: Freedom and Flexibility.

Reality: Constant decision making but also more opportunities.

I thought I had always wanted to do a trip that was completely open-ended with no plan in sight, however this trip has made me realise that I definitely prefer to have a plan. I might not always stick to it but I feel a lot happier and more secure if I know what our next steps are. One of the things I have found hardest about this trip is the constant decision making. Trying to judge whether we are doing the right thing or not is not easy. I mean I can’t even decide what to order at a restaurant let alone where, when and how we should travel the next part of our trip! Yet not having a plan, or at least not having anything booked ahead of time that we have to be somewhere for, has meant that when an opportunity has cropped up that sounds really good, we can go for it. There is no wondering ‘what if’ because we just move things around, reassess our current vague plan and make a new one. It is what led us to au pairing in Tocumwal, where we are currently at, a rural town three hours north of Melbourne we would never have expected to be but living with a lovely family and learning about the Australian way of life.

There are so many more ways I expected this trip to go but these are the big ones. At 150 days in it is hard to say Australia has exceeded my expectations as I still feel we have so much more to do, but it has certainly been unexpected in some of the best ways possible.

I have some major catching up to do on the trip posts so hang tight and expect a flurry of updates on what we have been up to. I’ll link them here as they come out too so all expectations and realities will begin to make sense.

The Road Trip Begins

Finally, after much paperwork and repairs, the van was ready for us to hit the road. We had ended up spending a couple of weeks in Melbourne and we felt this was more than enough. We were ready to move on and put our road trip plans into action.

On a grey morning we did our final preparations and set off for The Great Ocean Road. We couldn’t have picked a more scenic way to begin our trip. The Great Ocean Road actually officially starts from Torquay, a surfing town just outside Melbourne, and hugs the coastline for 243km until it reaches Warrnambool. Along the way there are plenty of viewpoints to stop off at and towns to explore so I had planned that our first day of driving would be a short one. The drive itself is half the fun though. The road twisted and turned, always with the sea to our left, crashing against rocks or lapping at small beaches. We passed coastal towns and stopped along the way at Point Addis, one of the many scenic viewpoints along the route. It felt so good to know that we were finally on our way.

Even though I had planned a short driving day after a late start and stopping for a few photo opportunities it was getting dark by the time we turned off The Great Ocean road and headed inland to find our first camp spot for the night. I had picked a free site in the Otway National Park called Beauchamp Falls. I pictured us arriving early, in time for a quick hike down the falls and then setting up camp. As is easy to do in Australia I had misjudged distance and we found ourselves driving through the dark up a long and winding road. Either side of us was thick forest and the signal was patchy and then gone entirely. We only passed one other vehicle, a mini bus of Asian Tourists, who stopped to ask the way back to Melbourne. We warned them it was a long drive and they would arrive in the city late and they warned us that they had turned back because the road was too narrow. But we had no choice but to carry on.

When we eventually pulled into the basic campsite it was pitch black. We used the headlights to scout the campground and found we couldn’t even park up on the grass as there were bollards in the way. There was no one else there and the deep dark forest surrounded us on every front. My imagination was running wild. Every bad horror movie was running through my head and looked suspiciously into the trees, half expecting to hear something or someone stirring. I tried to push these thoughts aside and started cooking dinner, making the van warm and cosy.

In the morning I emerged from the van into a tranquil forest glen. What had seemed dark and eery the night before was actually a gorgeous forest, with moss and vines growing over the trees that stretched endlessly to the sky and curly fungus growing on fallen logs. I stood in the middle of it all and took in the beautiful quiet, only the occasionally drip from the leaves around me and the twittering of birds nearby.

We were up nice and early and headed over to the nearby Otway Fly Treetop Adventure where you can either zip line through the trees or take a more sedate walk along the treetop walkway. Normally I’m always up for zip lining but to save a few bucks we opted for the walk instead. It was incredible to be right up in the canopy of these giant trees and there were signs with information about the local fauna that were really interesting. It is definitely worth a detour from the Great Ocean Road.

There was still plenty more to see along the next stretch of our journey and we headed out of Otway National Park and back to the coastline. There are several different rock formations along the Great Ocean Road, though the most famous and the one I was looking forward to the most was The Twelve Apostles. First we saw the Razorback, a long section of broken away cliff where the top has been worn razor thin by the elements. Then there is Loch Ard Gorge, which is named after a ship that wrecked there in 1878 as they were coming to the end of their three month journey from England to Melbourne. And finally The Grotto, an archway in the rock that frames a rock pool looking out to see, like a little private infinity pool. The Twelve Apostles is the main sight to see and it does perfectly capture what is so beautiful about the Great Ocean Road – a coastline stretching on forever, picturesque beaches and impressive rock formations. The Twelve Apostles are limestone stacks that have taken over 6000 years to form their shape and only eight remain after the other stacks collapsed into the ocean. But to me they were a symbol that the places I had seen pictures of, taken tips from guide books and brochures about and even described to others looking to book that trip, was now something I was getting to see and experience in real life. It brought home the fact that our long awaited road trip dreams were finally happening.

We veered off from The Great Ocean Road before it officially ended as our next stop was The Grampians National Park. It was another short drive day but again with all the stops in between we arrived as it was dark and bumped down a dirt track that led to our next free campsite. Luckily in this case there was another car on the road, a Juicy camper car we figured was also heading for the same campsite. We turned out to be correct and once we were parked up they came over to say hi. They were a lovely French couple spending six weeks exploring Australia and had already been in the national park for a couple of days so were able to give us tips on which hikes to do. This night didn’t feel quite so creepy as the last one and we were starting to find our feet with traveling in the van. Before settling in for the night we gazed up at spectacular starry sky, the Milky Way shimmering above us and loving every moment of being out in nature.

The next day we were off to explore it all by foot, starting our day of hiking with The Pinnacle, one of the most popular hikes in the Grampians. There are a few different options for walking it. You can start from Halls Gap, which is around 9.6km and takes around 5 hours going in a loop, there is the Sundial Carpark start point which is around 2.1km and 2 hours or from Wonderland Carpark which is similar distance and length but a slightly more challenging route. We started our walk from Sundial Carpark, mainly because we had one full day here and there were other hikes we wanted to fit in as well. The first natural marker we came across was The Grand Canyon,which isn’t quite as Grand as the one in the USA and made of grey stone instead of red (wish I could tell you the actual types instead of just the colours but that’s as far as my geology stretches). It is easy to think of Australia as being all like the outback, very much a desert landscape, but one of the things that has fascinated me about this country is just how different it can look from one area, one town, one state to another. In the Grampians, despite the different coloured rock, it could have been an American National Park we were hiking through – apart from the eucalyptus trees every so often – no koalas though unfortunately.

From the mini Grand Canyon we continued following the dusty path upwards, passing little nooks in the rock perfect for cooling off and tall sparse trees either side of us. Sometimes we followed the path and sometimes simple markers as we walked over rock. Eventually we reached Silent Street, an indication that we were nearing the top. This narrow path between a stone crevasse finished with a few steep stairs and only another ten minutes or less to the top. The Pinnacle itself is a rock jutting out (not unlike pride rock in the Lion King) over an incredible view o the National Park below. The views took your breath away but there was still more to see.

If I thought the view from The Pinnacle was amazing then I was even more blown away by the view from Baroka Lookout. For this we had to jump back in the van and head upwards on some very wiggly roads, even the temperature dropped further this high up. But it was worth it. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to see so far from a viewpoint before.

After Baroka Lookout we did another couple of shorter walks, one to The Balconies, an almost mini version of The Pinnacle but on a much flatter walk and overlooking a different side of the Grampians. The second to MacKenzie Falls Lookout. You can do a longer hike down to the falls themselves but we were feeling a bit tired at this point and opted to just look from afar from the shorter viewpoint walk instead. It turned out we made the right decision as after checking out the falls we turned to do a loop back to where we came from where a sudden movement to our right startled us both. We turned to see a wallaby hopping away into the brush. We got a good clear look at him as he tried to suss us out and then hopped into denser brush then we spotted a second but both were so well camouflaged (there is a wallaby in the first photo below as evidence of this – check out @ThereAndBackAgainJJ for a clearer video) we could have walked pass a hundred that day and not realised. We were so excited to see them up close and we got an extra treat back at the campsite when a cluster were grazing just outside our van at night and some were even nearby in the morning as we packed up for our next destination.

I would have loved to stay in The Grampians longer. There is so much to explore and many more hikes on offer, plus the campsite itself was so peaceful, but unfortunately up all the hilly roads our van had started making strange noises and we felt it was best to get it checked out in Adelaide where there were more accommodation options if we had to leave the van overnight to be fixed. As great as van life is this was a reality check to us that there are always possibilities of things going wrong and we crossed our fingers that we would make it to Adelaide safe and sound, that the van would be an easy fix and that this wouldn’t be the end of our road trip before it had really begun.

Melbourne – Exploring Australia’s Most Liveable City

Melbourne was voted most liveable city by the Economist Intelligence Unit for seven years in a row, a record breaking length (until it recently lost out to Vienna) and out of everyone I had spoken to about Melbourne I had only found two people who weren’t too keen. It was why we chose Melbourne as our starting point, to suss it out as a potential place to live later in the trip. Yet a week into arriving in this magnificent city and we hadn’t seen anything more interesting than the VICSRoad office, the bank and our caravan park. With life admin squared away we decided it was high time we checked out what Melbourne had to offer.

Melbourne Sea Life Centre

Just down the road from our hostel (also a short walk from Flinder’s street Station) is Melbourne Sea Life Centre, so after passing it so many times we decided to kill an afternoon while waiting for van repairs to take a look around. It was fun to check out, especially when trying to spot and name the fish we had seen on recent dives, but it was definitely more of a family activity. With the ticket price at per person $42 (or $32.50 if you have student discount) it probably isn’t worth it for a backpacker on a budget. That being said I did enjoy the talk by the big tank which features several types of shark, giant rays and a massive grouper called Mr G. When they first bought Mr G to the aquarium they decided to make sure he was well fed so that when he was introduced into his new tank he wouldn’t eat any of the other fish. They stuffed him full of 12kg of fish and figured that was more than enough. Oh no. Not for Mr G! He had been in the tank only a short while before he swam up to one of the sharks, almost the same size as him, and swallowed him whole. Yep. A grouper ate a shark whole. I never thought I would be more scared of a grouper than a shark! Apparently if you had blinked you missed it, his huge mouth opened and just gulped the shark whole. As unbelievable as it sounds, watching Mr G contentedly swimming around his tank, huge mouth gaping, it actually wasn’t too hard to believe.

Melbourne Zoo

I love a good zoo! I know a lot of people question the ethics of zoos but I believe as long as you are selective about going to legit zoos with a good reputation and outstanding conservation efforts, you can support something worthwhile. Melbourne Zoo was super easy to get to with tram, bus and train routes that stop directly outside the zoo. It’s a reasonable size too that if you want to see the whole park you can fi it into a full day without feeling rushed. The enclosures are broken down into groups and paths lead you on loops around each section. There are plenty of eating options but like most zoos it is all overpriced so best to bring a picnic. The only downside was the animal talks were quite short, less than ten minute run downs on the animals main attributes and background. It was one of my favourite things to do in Melbourne because it is always a joy to me to watch animals just being animals.

Free Walking Tour

After an incredible free walking tour in Berlin that set the bar high, we always keep a lookout for free walking tours wherever we travel. They are a great way to get a feel for a city and know your way around while getting an interesting history and side stories about the place. At the end you tip what you feel the tour was worth, or what your budget will allow. We took this tour with walkingtours101 which we heard about through the YHA hostel as they do pick ups there. He told us many interesting facts about the city, including that it was originally designed without any town squares as they didn’t want places where people could gather. Our guide explained the rebellion against the gold mining licences at the Eureka stockade and how the Eureka tower represents this with the red representing the blood shed, the blue the flag they flew and of course the gold top for the gold. Another interesting fact is that the city was originally called Batmania after one of the founding fathers called John Batman. Personally I think they should have kept the name, imagine telling people you were just off to Batmania for the weekend! The highlight for me was ending. At the Melbourne gaol where Ned Kelly was hung. Our guide told us the story of Ned Kelly’s final showdown and it sounded epic and made me interested to know more.

Secret bars – Berlin’s Bar

There are loads of secret bars in Melbourne. They have adopted the prohibition style without ever having had a prohibition in Australia. I wanted to check out a few more than just Berlin Bar but being a bit far out from the city centre this was the only one we made it to. It is above a bar called House of Maximon, which holds a free comedy night (again tip what you like) every Wednesday night. The bar is designed with one half like east Berlin and the other half like West Berlin, though we heard that strangely most people choose to sit by Stalin’s portrait in West Berlin than to enjoy the glam of the East Berlin decor.

Laneways

As part of our walking tour we passed through Hosier Lane, well known for its ever-changing street art. We were recommended to go more than once as you’ll see something different every time; this was definitely true as some of the art had already changed only a few days later when we passed through again. Most of the best stuff in Melbourne happens down these laneways, there are quirky shops, cute cafes and hidden gems of restaurants waiting to be found. We also met a friend for drinks at Chuckles Park Bar, right near Flinders Street, that turned out not to be down an alleyway but the bar was the alleyway itself! Heaters gave the place a warming glow, lanterns hung above us and the little shed at the end served up cocktails, wines and beers. Perfect place to spend an evening after a day exploring the city’s backstreets.

Immigration Museum

We walked past this museum over and over again and what caught my eye was the exhibition on tattoos in different cultures that sounded interesting. On a rainy day we decided it was a good time to mooch about the museum. Students get in for free, otherwise an adult ticket is $15, and it is worth checking out. The exhibitions are detailed and thought provoking. I’ll admit I found the tattoo exhibition the most interesting but it was a great rainy day activity.

St Kilda

I had heard lots of good things about St Kilda – basically if you like cafes, good food and markets this is the place to go. We went on the weekend and there were definitely Sunday vibes in the air. Everyone was eating outside in the sun and it reminded of pub lunches back home. The other great thing about Sunday is the St Kilda Esplanade Market that runs every Sunday and sells all sorts of trinkets, home-made soaps and tasty oils, spices and other foods with plenty of tasters on hand. Another must do is to try one of the cake shops in St Kilda. Europa has windows lined with chunky cheesecakes, thick wedges of cakes and fruity tarts – just about every treat you could want! We grabbed a chocolate cheesecake for me and a lemon meringue pie for Joey and headed to the Botanical Gardens for a mini picnic.

As the sun started to set we headed to the Pier for the other reason we had come to St Kilda. Every evening the little Fairy Penguins that call the rocks surrounding the pier home come back to their nests to fee their young and rest up before heading back out into the bay at dawn to fish again. Get there early as it gets very crowded but once the penguins start coming in people tend to disperse and stay a little later to see many of these cute penguins up close. The little penguins are kept an eye on by volunteers from Earthcare St Kilda, a non-profit organisation that work to protect the penguins and their home, making sure a safe distance is kept and their habitat isn’t disturbed.

I could see why Melbourne had won the award for most liveable city. I imagined myself living here, heading to the markets for fresh veg, hopping on the free inner city trams, spending lazy weekends in St Kilda and discovering all the secret bars with friends of an evening. At the same time the cold and the rain was off-putting and with so much more to explore of this vast country we were excited to move on. It was the perfect start place and I look forward to visiting again in the summer, whether we will settle here or not is still a long way off, for now we have some road tripping to do.