Subtitle: If you don’t Scoresby here, you’ll never score
My mum and sister were visiting, and they love Melbourne for its shopping. So I found myself joining them on the ‘Fashion Shuttle’ with numerous middle aged ladies, some phone screen teens, one poor husband – and an even glummer looking brother, and one super cool looking Japanese tourist with long dyed hair and a leather jacket.
The destination was the mega mall known simple as Chadstone, Shopping Centre. Or, Chadstone Fashion Capital, and ‘the biggest shopping centre in Australia and the Southern Hemisphere’ according to its website. There were 513 shops listed on the map that the driver handed out before we embarked on our fashion journey. I looked at four of them, and three of those were in the food court, the other was the AFL shop. Mum and sis seemed like they were in for the long haul and actually had a plan, so I arranged to meet up with them later.
I escaped Chadstone managing to spend only five dollars (two sushi rolls) and having my inner wrist exfoliated and moisturised by a friendly man with impeccable skin called Ben. I managed to extricate myself from his manuka honey product demonstration at the point where he made me scrutinise my own pores. I left none the more fashionable, but had the chance to finally make the outer-suburban curio that is the Carribean Gardens.
The busride was great, if you are into highways, hills and grass. We picked up some students at the massive uni campus, but not too many people were left on by the time it terminated at Stud Park, just the studs! Ha.
The journey to Carribean Gardens wasn’t designed for pedestrians, I was stomping through overgrown buffalo grass most of the way, and sidling through narrow roadsides where the ‘path’ vanished into creeks. I even saw a fox! (on the run).
Public transport users were pre warned about having to walk up the 800 metre driveway to get to the Carribean Gardens, they didn’t warn about the train crossing, or the chairlift! Just as well they weren’t running, in fact nothing much looked like it was running, the whole place had a bit of an abandoned 80’s amusement park vibe. But the impressively large gates and numerous entry booths suggested that prosperous times were had here once upon a time.
There were mushroom rooved picnic tables everywhere, a glorious ornamental lake lined with yellowing weeping willows, ducks, water fowl a couple of goats, and most excitingly, a pelican! There was a bright orange suspension bridge (a replica of San Francisco’s famous Golden Gate) that took you across to mini golf island (closed) and the Japanese ornamental garden, a wharf for ‘Jungle Cruises ‘ (closed) however the lions, cheetahs and elephants waited stoically on the banks for the next boatload of cruisers to pass by, mostly because they were made of fibreglass.
There was Grand Central Station for the not operating train, a mock paddle steamer playground, two tanks (one which was the first Centurion deployed to Vietnam apparently (with thanks to a military history pedant on reddit), a ground cannon, some trampolines and an adventure playground. There was a big papier mache looking chef head sitting above the hamburger shop/take away, his big blue eyes staring vacantly out above three cartons of chips and HUNGRY writ large in big yellow letters.
The market itself looked promising enough from the front, a flower and plant stall had a few browsers (Safari and Firefox! Heh), there was some cutesy crafty wallpaper with hip texta drawing depictions of the various produce and goods one could possibly find within.
There was a green grocer bellowing out fruit & vegetable specials, a bakery, a cake shop, a fancy organic butcher and then there was the market proper. An expansive shed/hall expanding out from the entrance way in two vast wings.
The one to the right where I first ventured was sectioned off maybe a quarter of the way along. Behind that rows and rows of trestle tables, silence and space. One of the stall holders was lamenting to another it was their quietest day in ages. Some of the stalls products looked like they haven’t even been glanced at since about 1993.
There was a few big screens of stickers, car logos, clothing brands, hair metal bands, motorcycle emblems, swears and sporting teams. Next was a raft of DVDs just in their slip covers, a second hand music stall that was albums of the 80s and compilation heavy. The next shop was a curio goldmine, those pictures that go from pleasant to sinister when you tilt them different ways, eagle statues and prints, crystals, mood rings, ear and toe and finger rings, of which I bought a blue stone iron looking one out of sympathy, and some chromey looking rock that was good for positive thoughts and energy. There was incense, holey dollars, dragon figurines, swell prints, dream catchers and printed clocks. I probably could have spent at least $11 there had I felt so inclined and bought one of everything.
The other section was a bit more spread out, but had three solid rows of stalls. There was the dubiously cheap gift packed perfume shop, the cheap sock lady, racks of tracky dacks and tie dyed Santa Cruz hoodies.
The next row was a bit more homely, there was a nice old dear with hand knitted beanies, scarves and headbands, I got one of the latter in Swans colours, but couldn’t find a big enough beanie unfortunately. But at least got a laugh when I pretended to try one on that was meant for a newborn.
There was a forlorn looking kebab caravan at the end of one of the sheds, they had a really great view out over the lake, but not so much out over the heads of many customers.
The last row had a few basketball singlets, some street brand tees and some NBA snap caps, there was a guy selling all his accumulated cross stitch kits and turn of the century sheet music scores for $1 a pop. Out they go. In fact there were a few stalls of the defeated by this point, an everything $5 sign had been struck through and discounted to $3, there were a few rows of stray economy size boxes of laundry powder going for a buck, and the poor hot nuts man couldn’t even give away any of his samples (not a euphemism).
It may not sound it, but I really liked being there, and I honestly wish I could think of a use or manufacture some sort of need for some of the things the people were selling. As the market folk looked both hardy and happy, and all bonded and a tight (pearl) knit community. They all had a cheeky nod or laugh for each other, some sort of story for any potential sale maker that walked past, and they seemed resilient enough to come back every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, even though most of the world seemingly don’t have it in their diaries.
I liked the scope and ambition of the place. Someone one day had a whopping great plot of land, a few bob to rub together and just plonked down things they thought people might like. How about a lake? Sure! Dig a hole over there, turn on the hose, and off we go! What if we could play mini-golf right near the lake? Let’s whack an island in! Bridges are great, let’s get a few of them. I reckon the Golden Gate Bridge is pretty neat, can we make one of those? Sure! I went to African Lion Safari once, that was great fun! Have we got any exotic animals? Ah, nah, but I’ve got a mate who has a mate that can get some. Okay, i’ll take two lions, a hippo, some giraffes and a cheetah! How good are mushrooms! Etc etc.
That’s how I imagine it anyway.
In reality, it’s actually fifty years since the park was opened to the public. The Spooner family initially acquired the land in a 300 acre parcel and used it for farming. In the 50s a boat factory was built, and a bit of thinking outside the box meant that they built a lake to test the boats in.
The first fibre glass boat built at Carribean Gardens
In 1966 the parklands began to be opened to the public on Sundays, and was a popular picnic place. The crowds were soon entertained by waterski spectacular shows, and the draw of the place saw it finally transformed into the Carribean Garden and Market in 1976.
In what is actually quite a common historical Australian footnote, the garden was filled with all sorts of excellent attractions, that only ceased to be when someone got a bit hurt. There was a weekly waterski spectacular, until someone got seriously injured. There was a chair-o-ride as part of the amusement rides, until it collapsed in high wind and damn near killed two people in 1997.
More recently, the markets have been the subject of scandal for selling counterfeit goods. The powerful US film industry lobby group The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) actually named the Carribean Markets was on its global list providing “detailed listing of the world’s most notorious marketplaces for the distribution of illegal film and television shows”.
Local rag the Knox Leader picked up this report and sent some undercover shoppers/journalists along in 2013 who “found illegal tobacco offered under the counter at stalls selling smoking paraphernalia including hookah pipes and “gram bags” used for marijuana packaging.
There was also a stall selling an array of vicious-looking knives behind large perspex screens – all legal according to the stallholder.
Illegal movies, including unreleased titles, were freely available and many stalls stocked fake designer-branded watches, perfumes, sunglasses and handbags labelled Dior, Chanel and Ray-Ban.”
The lake/gardens were home to the first fibre glass boat built in Australia, and Carribean has gone on to become one of our most iconic boating brands. The plant market was the go-to source for nurseries, Melbourne wide, there used to be a Futuro house here as an office, there’s a roller rink, and the Spooner family who run the gardens came in 19th in the BRW 2015 rich list of Australian families with around $626m to their name. A stark contrast to the stallholders, who I think half of whom would have barely made $40 that day.
There certainly seems, despite all appearances on the day I went, lots of life in the old Carribean Gardens, they’ve had food truck days, revisited the waterskiing spectacular, and have numerous muscle car and classic vehicle events going on. And most of the rides actually do run Sundays, weather permitting.
I passed through the last of the stalls and grabbed a pizza slice on the way out – they had been discounted to a dollar. The bakery lady was trying to upsell me to buy the whole lot (about 27 of them and a few french sticks) for $5. I took two out of pity and wandered back through the deserted lakeside to embark upon the epic bus, train, bus, tram adventure back to meet up with the family. They’d barely seen half of Chadstone Mall and were well chuffed with their afternoon’s shopping bargains. If only they’d liked pizza…