Thanks to a tip from Mandy Foot, erstwhile native of Richmond now living in Colorado, we set out earlier this week to visit Melbourne’s justly famous Royal Botanic Gardens. Helpful son-in-law Michael wrote out explicit instructions for riding the tram from Church Street (where the tram stops) and Abinger Street (where we live). It’s just a two-block walk from home to tram. A walk in the park before our walk in the park.
All went well for those two blocks. But then came the crisis. Holding Michael’s directions in hand, I noticed, for the first time, that he told us to catch the southbound tram on Church Street. Fine. But he didn’t say right or left. Which direction is south—to the right or to the left? Ordinarily I’m pretty good with directions, but in Australia the sun is in the wrong place. At least so it seems to us northern hemisphere natives, where things are where they are supposed to be (including cars, which are driven in the right-hand, not the left-hand lane.) So we experienced a moment of indecision. I might also mention I’d forgotten I have a compass in my iPhone. Well, when you’re flummoxed you can’t think of everything!
We chose to go right. We still must have appeared confused and very touristy to the young man walking toward us, coffee cup in hand. He seemed approachable, so I asked him, trying not to sound overly intelligent, “Which direction is south?” (I think I succeeded.) He pointed in the direction we had just come from. Then he asked our destination. “The Royal Botanic Gardens,” we told him, trying not to sound too cultured. (I think we succeeded here, also.) Then he gave us tram directions. They weren’t the same as Michael’s.
Sensing that these two old people probably shouldn’t have been allowed out on our own, he offered, “If you are willing to trust a stranger and will give me three minutes, I’ll drive you there.” I thought I misunderstood him—the accent you know, and my deafness. So I asked him to repeat what he just said. He repeated it. I hadn’t misunderstood. He left us at the corner and in a flash was back in his car, ready to drive us to the Gardens.
It turns out Colin has been to the States, to our state of Tennessee, where he visited Nashville and Graceland in Memphis (“where I had the closest thing to a religious experience I’ve ever had”) and other American sites. Before we knew it we had arrived and were saying goodbye to our new friend. Colin works for American Express. I hope it’s in the customer relations department. He’s a winner.
Here’s what’s impressive. Michael was very helpful. He gave us good directions, sending us off with best wishes to fend for ourselves, strangers in a strange land. It was a workday for him, so he went to work. Naturally. But it was a workday for Colin, also, yet he went to a lot of trouble to see that we were safely delivered. A Good Samaritan. He stopped what he was doing in order to rescue us. During working hours. We love our son-in-law. But… Just saying.
About the Gardens? It’s simply one of the most beautiful botanical gardens we have ever visited. Almost 100 acres of creatively designed and lovingly maintained show places featuring over 10,000 individual species, both native to Australia and imported. We were surprised to see so many cacti and succulents, as an example; they made us Arizonans feel right at home, as did the section that looked and felt so much like the dense forests of Oregon. Wetlands are preserved here, too, and lessons on biodiversity and ecology are everywhere. We couldn’t take it all in. We put in an six-hour day and felt we had barely skimmed the surface of what’s available. We’d like to go back before we leave Melbourne.
Oh, I should have mentioned that the weather that day was also extraordinary—temperature in the seventies (Fahrenheit), an almost cloudless sky. And it’s late November. (Ah, but that’s springtime in Australia!)
I mention the weather because Melbourne is famous for how quickly it changes. We’ve experienced its fickleness in the short time we’ve been here. The day we arrived the temperature was in the 90s. Then it dropped precipitously to the upper 50s, then leveled off for several days in the 70s. Sunday will be near 90 again but Monday in the 60s. Wild.
Here’s what’s really wild. Last week the town experienced something they call Thunderstorm Asthma. As one with a lifetime acquaintance with asthma, I confess this is something I’d never heard of. Candy, who shares my affliction, and I compared notes. We were coughing and wheezing and itching and commiserating that our allergies were attacking more fiercely than usual. Turns out we were right–they were fiercer– and we were the lucky ones. After the storm passed through we learned that more than 8000 people were hospitalized and to date eight have died—of asthma! When we learned this we quit complaining about our minor complaints.
Here are a few sentences from the weather bureau’s report: “Victorian Health Minister Jill Hennessy likened the state’s asthma crisis to ‘150 bombs going off at once’. She said emergency services were not prepared to respond to an extreme weather event of that scale as the death toll reached eight people, with another patient still in a critical condition following the storm on Monday last week. ‘We’ve just never encountered anything of the scale and the scope (of that),’ she said.”
Ms Hennessy called it “’the perfect storm’ of a change in weather conditions with high pollen levels. This was an unprecedented and unpredictable incident where over 8500 people required care,” she said.
The report called this “deadly thunderstorm asthma attack…the worst recorded in the world.”
And we were here!