Every Christmas my Uncle Johnny from Geelong would say to me
Coming down to see us, Jan-nine?
Kenny’ll drive you round.
My Uncle Johnny was a broadshouldered, tanned man, butcher by trade, Geelong Football Club player as a young man, and in my mind’s eye he always wore a hat, as men often did in the 1960s. Kenny was my cousin, and they lived a stone’s throw away from the Cardinia Park football ground at Geelong, about 75 kms south-west of Melbourne. I must admit we didn’t go down to Geelong very often and when we did it always seemed a monumental trek for a day-trip. You’d pass the abattoirs in Kensington, the smelly sewerage farm going through Werribee, the You-Yangs in the distance and the yellow tongue of flame flickering above the Corio oil refinery.
But a week or so ago I sat in traffic trying to drive from Bundoora to Fitzroy and it took 45 minutes to travel 13 kms. Good lord, I thought, I may as well go to Geelong! And so I did- 75 minutes to travel 95 km (because I live north of the city) on freeway the whole way and not an abbattoir or refinery to be seen or sewerage farm to be smelled- although there was still the tang of something noisome when we passed an industrial estate on the way.
Geelong is much smaller than Melbourne. Its city centre is dominated by the bay and Eastern Beach which is a popular promenade complete with boardwalks, a carousel and sand. They have some rather cute bollard figures along the boardwalk as a tourist feature, reflecting different aspects of Geelong’s history. There are over 100 of them, created in 1995 by artist Jan Mitchell, utilizing wood from an old pier. I remember seeing them first in Barwon Heads, but they’ve obviously proliferated!
In Judge Willis’ time (i.e. 1840s) , Geelong very much rivalled Melbourne as the main city in the Port Phillip district. It was surveyed only three weeks after Melbourne and it developed largely in tandem with it in the early years. Its post office opened in 1840 (the second in the district); it had its own newspaper when John Fawkner, proprietor of the Port Phillip Patriot published the Geelong Advertiser under the editorship of James Harrison (the maker of the first mechanical refrigeration process to produce ice), and steamers plied the bay regularly between Geelong and Melbourne. Many of its streets reflect the names of Port Phillip pioneers who had a presence in Geelong as well as Melbourne (Fyans, Swanston, Lonsdale, Verner, Kilgour, McKillop…) and there are still several large National Trust properties in the district that were built by wealthy pastoralists in the area. Corio Villa, which is privately owned, is a beautiful cast iron prefabricated house that has a prime position overlooking the bay (you might remember that I visited the much more humble South Melbourne cast iron ones here).
The Geelong Botanic Gardens, opened just a few years after Melbourne’s were laid out by Daniel Bunce on the crest of the hill that overlooks Eastern Beach and the bay- probably a less than propitious place to establish a botanic garden. Although quite small, they have all the formality of the Melbourne Gardens and they had- wait for it!- a pelargonium conservatory, although why pelargoniums need the protection of a conservatory is beyond me. Apparently they were left the money to built it, as long as it was dedicated to pelargoniums (pelargonia?)
Geelong became the focal port for the pastoral industry of the western district. Huge bluestone and brick wool stores were built on the main streets and facing the wharf. The Australian National Wool Museum is located in one of the most beautiful of them
There is a permanent display at the Wool Museum celebrating the importance of wool to Australia’s economy and national identity. Its a very hands-on exhibition with lots of wool to squeeze, with some fascinating recreated woolsheds, shearers’ quarters and wool factory workers’ houses. There is a temporary exhibition space as well. And what would you find there, you may ask…… NOT DINOSAURS!
They may look like dinosaurs to those of us not blessed with a six year old, but as a tousle-headed little blonde boy announced as he ran from exhibit to exhibit roaring in dinosaur-like fashion (whatever that is), “Not a dinosaur. Not a dinosaur”. Instead they were creatures from the Permian era, 290 million years ago. They were nearly all wiped out by the Permian-Triassic Extinction which wiped out 96% of all marine life, 70% of all terrestrial vertebrates and all insects. None of the creatures shown survived the extinction as such, although some variants of them were the progenitors of the next stage. The exhibition suggested (although I think that there are other theories) that this mass extinction was prompted by the lava flows of the Siberian Traps, one of the largest volcanic events on earth that lasted a million years and covered over 2,000,000 square kilometres with lava. The exhibition has been extended until 10th June. It costs $7.50 for an adult and both the Permian exhibition and the permanent wool exhibition (how poetic) are included in the price.
Then off to our very prosaic motel which certainly looked better on the web than it did in real life: clean, quiet but still a motel. The next day brunch with a friend that I haven’t seen for ages, then back up the freeway for 95 km again.
So, Uncle Johnny, I did come down to Geelong, even if Kenny didn’t drive me round.