In my denim shorts and Birkenstocks the cool Melbourne air emits a chill as we step onto the tarmac. It’s overcast, a light breeze, barely 22 degrees. Pretty typical for the last day of summer.
The airport terminal has changed since we were last here and I struggle to get my bearings. We’ve landed at terminal 4, the one used for budget airlines. The ground level is crowded and I’m somewhat daunted by the mass of people we are forced to weave through. Aside from the continued presence of facemasks, it’s like COVID never happened.
Through nothing more deliberate than luck, we’ve somehow managed to avoid the flooding in southeast Queensland which has been going on for the past week. Flights bound for Brisbane as well as certain other popular holiday destinations have been cancelled, leaving Melbourne airport chaotic and confused. Voiceovers direct passengers to the airline app to find out about their options, but many are preferring to ignore this instruction, opting instead to join the snaking queue of fellow flip-flop wearers, in the hope of speaking to a real human being.
Dragging our pile of suitcases (mine consisting mostly of Aussie summer-wear – skirts, singlets, bikinis), we find ourselves a table to lean against at the café opposite baggage claim. I connect to the airport free WiFi while Michael attempts to call the credit card company in order to activate Google Pay on our phones. This way we can join the rest of the millennials and pay for public transport simply by scanning our phones.
Unfortunately, we have left it too late; it will take 24 hours for our credit cards to be verified. With our bus leaving in an hour, we have no other option but to stump up $6 each for a plastic Myki card instead. One-off paper tickets no longer exist and apparently Victoria is not yet advanced enough to allow a simple credit card tap payment method for its public transport like Sydney or London.
I order my first “Melbourne” coffee from the café, a medium-sized oat milk latte. I note its customarily-warm temperature, but other than that it tastes like any other barista-made coffee. I can’t help but chuckle remembering our recent visit to a Queensland shopping centre with its shiny new café franchise promising “Melbourne-style” coffee, like it’s any different to the stuff you can get in Sydney or Brisbane.
If only it were mandatory for every international airport to have a Starbucks.
Plastic Myki cards successfully purchased, we wait at the breezy bus stop outside the airport for the public bus to arrive. Somewhat unexpectedly, it sways quietly around the bend right on time. Just three other passengers climb aboard with us, two of which do not bother with masks despite the continuing requirement applicable for public transport.
The bus avoids the freeway, driving along back streets through the outskirts of Melbourne. Within ten minutes the landscape has transformed from grey concrete buildings to familiar yellow paddocks dotted with bush scrub and clusters of cows. The road narrows, the edges become uneven and we bounce over potholes and informal speed humps. Between the paddocks, we pass new housing estates, the frames of partially constructed houses jostling for optimum position.
Drizzle turns to rain the following morning, and sets in miserably for hours. I gaze out the front window to the quiet neighbourhood street, the sound of a single car shushing by on its way to work.
It’s too wet to wander so we drive around the nearby towns before stopping optimistically in Woodend just 40 minutes from where I grew up. We take shelter in a busy corner bakery, order meat pies, cappuccino, and vanilla slice. Tradies in workboots, and real estate agents in cheap office attire, fill tables not yet occupied by grey-haired retirees. A poster on the wall colourfully advertises an Autumn festival on a long weekend in April, the next town over.
We wind our way back along bumpy back roads without line markings. The windscreen fogs up and I fiddle automatically with the incoming air. Groups of soggy kangaroos munch grass in paddocks, undisturbed by the sound of our engine as we pass.
The scent of wet leaves and creek water fills my nostrils, intoxicating, and it’s like I’ve been here before.