Melbored? – eMelbourne

This article first appeared in Farrago (Issue 6, 2013)

Excuse the sneaky brag, but as I write this entry I am approximately 7100 kilometres from home, connected to Cambodian wifi. This may not seem like the ideal place to write a travel column about Melbourne, but only amateurs actually visit the subjects of their work. Honestly, why would I bother getting lost in graffiti-marred alleyways, or lifting my chin towards skyscrapers when I could do just as much from the comfort of my hotel lobby room?

Google Maps isn’t just for stalking exes, you know. Combined with its troublingly proficient Streetview mode, this cartographic software lets web users travel the world at their fingertips, giving millions access to cities they can only dream of visiting.

So let’s suppose I were a curious Cambodian who wanted to explore Melbourne but didn’t feel inclined to book a flight. What would I find?

Google's interpretation of Bourke St

Google’s interpretation of Bourke St

If I searched for Bourke St, I’d find Christmas decorations, the Myer windows, and the Public Purse. Only if I looked carefully would I also spot a jaywalker, a bike, and a solitary tram.

Similarily, if I searched for Swanston St I’d find a taxi driver creating a scene, a mysterious man in a Hawaiian shirt, and not much else.

191 Swanston St

191 Swanston St

In other words, I’d find a few of Melbourne’s attractions. But I wouldn’t find Melbourne.

Besides a few narrow shopping strips that happened to be alive at the time the Streetview car rode by, the Melbourne of the interwebs is not the Melbourne in which you and I are so familiar. Not only were the photos taken in December 2009 – an epoch when Dimmeys still stood strong and RMIT’s ensemble of crazy constructions were just a twinkle in their architect’s eyes – but they depict Melbourne as a placid ghost town.

The good ol' days when Dimmeys on Swan St was the heart of Richmond

The good ol’ days when Dimmeys on Swan St was the heart of Richmond

You could argue that this is Melbourne at its naked best – caught at a candid moment when it was simply being itself. What’s more likely is that Google caught Melbourne still hung over from the night before, not giving it sufficient notice to dress up for the occasion.

Google Melbourne does have its quirks. On Little Collins St, a cosmopolitan metropolis is in full force with metalheads sharing the sidewalk with schoolgirls and mini-skirt-clad blondes. More intriguing, however, is the baseball-cap-wearing creep trying to hide behind a light-post outside Bettina Liano.

Man Standing Behind A Pole

Man Standing Behind A Pole

Then there’s the choose-your-own-adventure version of Flinders St station, where the right and left arrows take you into parallel universes. In one world, police vehicles are mounting the kerb and driving along the footpath. In the second world, a trio of red shirted salespeople are either distributing propaganda or giving away lollies. Regardless of their activity, pedestrians are avoiding them with as much effort as their parallels are avoiding the divvy vans.

Flinders St Station version 1.0

Flinders St Station version 1.0


Flinders St Station version 2.0

South of the intersection we find an attention-seeking pedestrian, using the bicycle lane to practice his jogging. He appears to progress faster than the traffic, which is no surprise. What is surprising, however, is the way he suddenly mutates from a running man to a cycling man in a split second. One presumes there is a logical reason behind this sudden evolution, but Google doesn’t give us the context – only the clues.

Now you see him

Now you see him

Now you don’t

In this regard Google travel is in many ways similar to real travel. When bumbling through an unfamiliar town, you are by default a confused observer, trying to take everything in without quite knowing what’s going on.

What’s important to remember, however, is that’s no substitute for the real thing. You can exhaust every nook and cranny in Streetview until you run out of bandwidth, but there’ll only ever be one way to see Melbourne.

What have you spotted on Google Streetview? Send your Melbourne screenshots to @Hawkins_Kevin