When interviewed by the Hobsons Bay Leader (the article was published on 28 September 2010), the journalist emailed me a list of questions. One of the questions is why I choose to live in Altona. You will be wrong in thinking that I know a lot about Altona prior to making it my home.
I came to Melbourne in 2003 and in the following 4 years, I have been staying solely in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, first in Glen Huntly, then in Carnegie. All my friends are living on the eastern side of Melbourne and my knowledge of Melbourne is restricted almost exclusively to its eastern suburbs. When I got married in December 2006, I decided to purchase a home to prepare for my wife arriving. An important criterion is the house must be within walking distance to a train station. Burying myself in Google Maps and realestate.com, I searched for suitable properties along the various train lines outwards from Melbourne CBD. All the houses in the eastern and even the northern suburbs were pricey so I have to search further and further away from the CBD. I made an offer for a house near Springvale but the owner was not willing to lower the asking price.
At that time, I had hardly heard about the western suburbs. I had not even set my feet in Melbourne’s West. I know places near the water are in demand everywhere in the world. I would never dream to live besides the bay in Singapore but perhaps it is possible for my dream to be realized in Melbourne. The Eastern bayside suburbs were beyond my affordability but I heard that they had greatly appreciated only in recent history. I predict the same trend will be replicated on the other side of Port Phillip Bay.
I turned to my favourite Google Maps and searched for properties down the Werribee Train Line, discovering unfortunately that Seddon, Yarraville, Newport and Williamstown were not within my budgets. Then I discovered Altona, whose house prices were still within my means in 2007 ($300-$400K). The names Seaholme, Altona and Westona sound very idyllic. Seaholme must be the Home of the Sea while Altona and Westona conjure the image of gentle, attractive girls dancing gracefully in a coastal paradise.
From Google Maps, you can see that Altona is at the same latitude as St Kilda. It also has a very long coastline. Using Google Maps’ Distance Measurement Tool, the distance between Lower Kororoit Creek and Laverton Creek is determined to be 6.04 km. This is the distance from St Kilda Pier to Park Street in Brighton on the eastern side of Port Phillip Bay. The distance of Altona from Melbourne CBD is about 13 km, about the same distance as Glen Huntly from the City.
From Wikipedia, I found out that Altona Beach is one of only two swimmable beaches in the western suburbs, the other being Williamstown. To the west of Altona is the vast Point Cook Coastal Park. Clearing away this Park for future bayside residential developments would probably destroy ecologically-sensitive ecosystems and would draw too much objections. Unlike the east where many bayside suburbs have beaches, the west will probably be limited to three beaches now or in the future, at Williamstown, Altona and Werribee South/Wyndham Harbour. I believe that an “ugly duckling” such as Altona will become coveted one day as a “transformed swan” due to its scarcity bayside value in Melbourne’s West.
Playing around with Google Maps can be both fun and informative. The map above indicates many green areas which are nature reserves, parks and open spaces. Besides the sea and green areas, what stands out is the huge Cherry Lake. I am interested in knowing its size compared with Albert Park Lake. Using Google Planimeter, I traced around the contours of both Cherry Lake and Albert Park Lake to measure their respective areas. Cherry Lake is actually 33 acres larger than Albert Park Lake. Cherry Lake measures 152.3 acres while Albert Park Lake measures 119.8 acres. I have always suspected that Kooringal Golf Course is very huge and it could be one of the largest golf courses in Melbourne. Its area is determined to be 101.8 acres using the Planimeter. The distance from the western to eastern end of the golf course along Queen Street is 1.28 km.
You can also see from this map that the Esplanade is a very long road (3.15 km) that runs along the water edge, following the contours of Altona’s coastline. The Werribee Train Line runs pretty close to the coast as well. The stretch closest to the sea (200 metres) is besides Altona Road, between Pines’ Scout Camp and W.G. Cresser Reserve. The Train Line runs centrally through Altona, dividing it into roughly an equal-sized northern and southern half. It is a blessing to Altona that there are 3 closely-spaced train stations in a suburb whose population is much lower than that of Altona Meadows, Point Cook, Hoppers Crossing or Werribee. As residential Altona is more wide than tall and the Train Line runs symmetrically through it, all parts of Altona are not far away from one of the 3 train stations. The high-speed V-Line trains do not run through residential Altona. They run on the express train tracks north of Altona between Laverton and Newport, thereby minimizing noises to the residents.
So far Altona looks promising on Google Maps. This piqued my curiosity to see what Altona actually looks like. One day, I decided to make use of my lunch time to make a train trip to Altona. After the Werribee Train exited the City Loop tunnel, the outside scenery looked very industrial, with container ports, warehouses and broken, disused buildings. In particular, the Footscray Train Station looked rundown, filthy and unsafe. But the scenery improved past Footscray. The train tracks were elevated so you can have a bird’s eye view of the houses below. I found the Victorian and Edwardian weatherboard houses in Yarraville endearing. I also love the Pepper Trees at Seddon and Newport Train Stations.
After Newport, the Werribee Train entered a landscape so barren and desolate that I would describe it as a “No Man Land”. The Oil Refinery and tanks looked ugly and intimidating. When the train was wriggling between the tanks, the journey seemed unimaginably long and arduous. I can see why many people, put off by this sight, were deterred to venture beyond, thereby missing the charms that Altona has to offer.
But once past the Refinery, you will be rewarded by an overhaul of the scenery. First, you will be greeted by the meandering Kororoit Creek, where you can sometimes see black swans bobbing up and down the waterway. Next is the Altona Coastal Park, carpeted by swathes of pink flowers (Carpobrotus rossi) blossoming in late October. For this stretch, the Train Line runs very close to the sea and you will be able to see the Dandenong Mountain Ranges in the distance, on the opposite side of Port Phillip Bay. My favourite sight is the W.G. Cresser Reserve with its expanse of green fields against the azure sea and sky.
It was a stroke of fate that I happen to choose a Tuesday to visit Altona, which would subsequently seal my relationship with Altona. When I stepped out of the Altona Train Station, I was immediately attracted by the colourful and festive Altona Beach Market along Pier Street. There is a permeating village-like ambience in Altona, with the setting of a seaside resort. A short distance down Pier Street is the beach and the Altona Pier. The place feels like a different world, although Altona is just a short 25 minutes train ride from cosmopolitan downtown Melbourne.
Feeling excited by my discovery of this hidden gem, I made the instant decision of buying a house in Altona and nothing is going to waver my decision. I visited all the real estate agents in Pier Street and informed them of my interest. I was told that houses in Altona, particularly those south of the railway line, had appreciated substantially over the past one year. My initial budget was $300K but subsequently I had to revise this up twice.
I walked to the Westona Train Station and explored the surrounding areas. I met a very friendly lady called Michelle who was walking two large dogs. She had a long chat with me and told me Altona is a fantastic place to live in. At the end of our conversation, she pointed me to a house for sale opposite Altona College. There was a huge advertisement board from which I copied the real estate agent’s phone number. I contacted the agent immediately and found out the house was up for auction. Unfortunately, I would be returning to Singapore before the auction. I made a pre-auction offer, which I need to raise due to a competitive offer. I suspect that I may get this house cheaper, have I been able to wait for the auction. It took me 3 weeks in May 2007 from the start of research to the acceptance of offer and this duration included the unsuccessful offer for the Springvale house.
I discovered only several months later that I was living 3 houses away from that of Julia Gillard. At the time of the property settlement, she was still in opposition and I did not know much about Australian politics. From this humble street in Altona, I have actually witnessed the making of Australian history, including the emergence of the Labour Party from its long-reigning political wilderness into government, the superseding of Kevin Rudd by Julia Gillard as the Prime Minister and the uncertainties of the current minority government.
After moving into Altona, I began to explore its environment. The more I explore, the more I realize how many secrets this place holds. What other suburbs in Melbourne would you find 3 Zone 1 train stations, sea, beach, lake, 3 creeks, numerous nature reserves and parks, a historical museum, an art gallery, a performance theatre, a massive golf course and many sports clubs. Altona is also endowed with abundant biodiversity and is rich in arts and culture as well as sports and recreational activities. It has its own annual Bayside Festival, Altona Beach Market and Cherry Lake Sunday Market to be proud of.
My decision to settle in Altona is based more on instincts and impulse rather than due diligence and extensive research of the suburb. Other than talking to Michelle, I have not sought the opinions of other people. Some friends are still saying negative things about Altona but this has not changed my conviction that I have made the correct decision. I am proud to be an Altona citizen and this prompted me to write this blog.