When you have children, you eventually end up in Healesville, one way or another. One way is the Maroondah Highway. If you tell someone you took the children to Healesville at the weekend, they will ask you two questions: 'How was the traffic?' and, as an afterthought, 'How were the wombats/koalas/numbats?'
The answer is always 'appalling', meaning the Maroondah Highway, not the animals; but on a Sunday in December it is even worse, given that half of Melbourne drives to the hills for Christmas picnics, obeying navigators (the GPS ones, not your wife) that push everyone onto the same road when several alternatives are available for old-school Melway-readers. The road is a traffic light-ridden nightmare. Endless minutes crawl by while you wait for green after minutes of red followed by random directional arrows. The motorcade then draws on at snail's pace towards Ringwood past about five branches of Fantastic Furniture, six Barbeques Galore, nineteen McDonald's, three or four Storage Kings, and a suburb called Chirnside Park - by which time you are a little over halfway to Healesville.
So never take the Maroondah Highway. Drive north instead.
Take the Northern Ring Road at the top of Sydney Road, make your way through Greensborough to Main Road and follow it through Eltham to Yarra Glen. Hardly any lights. Somewhere beyond Christmas Hills, the climbing road tops a ridge. Before you, laid out seemingly in miniature, is the entire Yarra Valley. Early one morning a few years ago, when the sun was starting to toss gold spears over the distant hills, I saw a hot air balloon way down below me. Yes, flying. That bird's eye view of the Yarra Valley makes the northern crossing a tourist journey.
From the ridge, you drop down into Yarra Glen, Khyber Pass-style, and head east through rolling hills along the scenic Old Healesville Road, from which you will take Healesville by surprise from the north-west. No-one uses this road except locals. Everyone else is approaching Healesville, slowly, from the south-west, on the Maroondah. Go past the deer farm (address: Stag Road) and you're there, having endured 75% fewer traffic lights and probably 90% less actual traffic than Maroondah Highway.
The short main street of Healesville was lined with cafes packed with people eating breakfast although it was near midday. We drove straight through town and out the other side. Ten minutes later, I turned the car in at a large gate bearing a scripted sign reading Healesville Greyhound Racing Club. A long gravel drive past some sporting grounds led to a car park on a high terraced hill and below it, a long, low corrugated iron building in the post-modern style. Beyond the iron building, acres of green lawn carpeted the foreground of a four hundred metre straight track. A marquee was set up on the lawn. We left the car, crossed the lawn and entered the marquee.
It was one of those catered affairs where the wait staff appear from nowhere all afternoon carrying trays; and no tray ever has the same thing on it twice. The children had never seen anything like it. 'The trick,' I told them, from long experience in the hospitality industry (on both sides of the jump) 'is not to eat everything. You'll lose your appetite and then something amazing will come out and you won't be able to eat it. If you're not sure, wait. The food never runs out at these functions. Never!'
A fawn greyhound loped past and licked Alex on the chin. It had to stoop to do so. The big ones are particularly affectionate. A waiter came by with a platter of chilled cucumber rings topped with teriyaki chicken, then another with peking duck in pastry cylinders and a crushed peanut and chili soy dipping sauce. Later, miniature chicken pies dusted with poppy seed; tiny ciabatta squares with chilled gazpacho to dunk; chicken sambal skewers; and arancini-style rice balls, but with a Persian saffron-yellow, golden crusted finish and a yogurt dipping sauce.
The event was the "VIP Afternoon for GAP (Greyhound Adoption Program) Foster Carers" put on by Greyhound Racing Victoria. The greyhound racing industry CEO attended. This year, no-one had a harder job, except perhaps Damien Hardwick, or the VRC steward whose front door was shot in. The CEO's speech was short, like a greyhound race, and heartfelt. It had been a difficult year, and the work of the foster carers had been vital in getting the hounds out into the community. Later, one of the foster carers present had told me that when the live bait story was in the news, she had received hostile stares and comments when out walking her dogs.
Meanwhile the children were far away down on the sloping lawn, being entertained by Kelly Sports who had set up a twenty-foot tug of war, a mini soccer pitch, a football bounce net, and a handball competition. Way better than some lame clown. It was like World of Sport. All it needed was Neil Roberts to pass the ball and Doug Elliott to hand out the Patra orange juice. Then they conducted a water relay to cool the kids down.
It was close to three in the afternoon and very hot now. Some of the crowd had retired to the long, low air-conditioned clubroom. In the marquee, the waiters were bringing reinforcements: mini polpetti with plum sauce, sushi cut on the diagonal with tamari, grilled whiting tails in paper cones with crisped fries and a lemon slice. Then a server appeared with a tray of tiny eye fillet squares marinated and cooked rare with a small knob of chilled garlic butter skewered through the top. I had broken my own rule. I couldn't eat another thing.
By five o'clock, back over the Khyber Pass and home. I thought I could hear the distant hum of traffic down on the Maroondah, but it might have been cicadas in the trees. They're early this year.