As the sun goes down on Melbourne, office workers flood the streets, pumping like blood through the public transport system; the city turns on her neon lights and cranks up the volume.
The Yarra loses its unhealthy brown lapping and takes on a petrol black sheen, throwing back the lights of the city like a mirror in her face. Walking along the river’s banks you can hear them before you see them; the party boats.
The most common variety, the “pigeon” of the river, chugs long low to the water, like a semi-submerged bus; a tiny deck carved into the rear like an afterthought, or a beer garden tacked on after Melbourne’s smoking ban came into force.
Neon disco lights stamp out flashing silhouettes of the revellers within, as they dance to pumping top 40 tunes.
It’s a particular style of party that goes on within these boats. The kind that conjures memories of university parties, with beer-soaked chips and cheap wine. They are commonly the venue for the kind of parties that feed the greeting card industry; milestone birthdays, hens’ and bucks’ nights, the office Christmas bash or year 12 graduation — parties with purpose.
And so it is that I am here; being told to “watch my step” down the stairs, as I navigate my way from the metal gangplank, and down into the depths of the boat. Ours is the Yarra Duchess, property of Melbourne River Cruises.
It is a friend’s 30th birthday, and unfortunately for us it happens to be around 35 degrees in Melbourne. The encroaching night sky seems only to have trapped the day’s heat like a water glass over a cockroach. Stepping into the boat therefore becomes like stepping into a sauna. Rule number one; party boats, lined with their large-touring windows, suck in the heat.
The effect is such that our party steps into the boat and, like salmon seeking out their stream of birth, we file along her breadth and up out onto the deck behind, knocking our heads in quick succession on her low-hanging exit as we go. Rule number 2; watch you head, and try to grow only more vigilant as the night wears on.
On the deck you can survey the city with the wind in your hair. It is a warm and hairstyle destroying wind, but it is pleasant nonetheless. The city truly is beautiful from this vantage point, bathed in a flattering evening light.
There is a small bin on one side of the deck which will necessitate the constant breaking up of chatting groups throughout the night as people seek out a refuge for their cigarette butts. At least I hope this was kept up, although I honestly can’t swear that some weren’t put off by the effort later on and emboldened by the night’s shadows to surreptitiously sink their rubbish into the river. All I can say is thank god for the river’s rubbish traps, however jarring they may be aesthetically.
We are given a lecture on safety. It concerns listening for the boat’s horn, at which we must duck down if we are outside on the deck. Apparently the Yarra’s bridges are quite low.
And then the bar is opened. The beers are served in glasses smaller than your average water glass. They’re smart, these party boat operators. Years of 18ths and bucks parties have taught them the value of tiny portions.
There’s food also. It seems to have been transported from some time in the past when all party food came festooned with its own toothpick. So we prise meatballs from their woody supports, and more meat, this time stacked kebab-style, from along skewers. There are sandwiches too, crusts removed, and ready to party.
The circular route that our boat laps offers vistas of the city, cutting through Southbank and the Docklands, as well as views of parkland, including the Botanical Gardens. There is also the chance to see a display of Melbourne’s moneyed homes as they lounge, sprawled and decadent, down the banks of the river in Toorak, Kooyong and Hawthorn.
With the DJ spinning and popular r&b pumping, the heat is not enough to put people off.
The staff are dressed in slightly ridiculous sailer getup, but the costumes still demand authority. Later in the evening, when one of the brass-buckled employees is straddling a support pole within the ship, swinging suggestively at the circle of onlookers, it adds a kind of fetish-party flair to the evening. Horny sailor boys and shiny poles, you like them? We got ‘em all on board the party boat.
All in all it’s a fun night. The staff are friendly, possibly too friendly, but only much like all service staff are.
After four hours onboard, the exit is assisted much like the entrance, with a “watch your step, have a good night”.
At 11pm, on the banks of the river and with Melbourne laid out before us like a web of opportunities, the party boat pushes us off for our next adventure. I imagine this is how most parties end on the river, with a new beginning somewhere else in Melbourne’s streets.
Although we sailed with Melbourne River Cruises, there are numerous other cruising companies set up to cater for your wildest partying dreams. Melbourne River Cruises runs a fleet of seven ships, including the Yarra Countess, Yarra Empress, Yarra Queen, Yarra Princess, Yarra Duchess, Yarra Explorer, and the Spirit of Melbourne.
The ships range in size and cater for parties from 40 people to 150 at the most for cocktails, and 100 for a banquet-style event. For enquires you can visit the website, or pop along to Vault 11 Banana Alley, Melbourne.