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Matt Phillips: The walking tour guide

matt phillips i'm free tours melbourne

Head Tour Guide. I'm Free Tours Melbourne

“Tourists are surprised to see a lot of Asian people here. I get asked quite a bit about that.”

Almost every mobile phone is raised in the direction of Flinders Street Station. As the group snaps pictures of the Melbourne landmark and its backdrop of the skyline, one man stands apart watching them with a smile.

Matt Phillips has lost count of how many tour groups he has taken to the top of Hamer Hall but he never tires of their enthusiastic reactions to the view.

“I love showing people this view,” he said. “There are other great ones too. There’s the balcony at the Shrine of Remembrance, the restrooms in Sofitel Hotel, Lui Bar at Rialto Tower and of course, Eureka Skydeck.”

Photography session over, the tourists thank Matt for the three-hour walking tour and happily hand him the gratuities and tips that are part of the I’m Free Tours model.

Having run the tours for four years, it’s obvious that the earnings, although a tidy sum, take a bit of a backseat to the pleasure of showing off his city.

“I love tourism,” Matt said. “I love what it represents in terms of showing people around cities, and teaching and entertaining them. This is truly my industry. And Melbourne is my home.”

Hamer Hall is a 2,661 seat concert hall, the largest venue in the Arts Centre complex and home to the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. When it opened in 1982, a special private bathroom was built for visiting dignitaries, Prince Charles and Lady Diana.

You’re a Melburnian then?

Yea, I was born here and grew up near the Dandenong Ranges. I was 14 years old when we moved to Sydney because of my father’s work. But I lived in Sydney for 16 years as a Melburnian. I knew I wanted to live here again at some stage. I moved back in 2012.

How did you end up with the I’m Free Tours?

I actually didn’t even know the tours existed until a friend from Spain invited me along on one. I thought being a tour guide would be a good job for several years. Then I could look to Asia or Europe.

You were away from Melbourne for 16 years. How did you prep for the tours here?

People had a bit of a laugh that I started these tours after not having lived in Melbourne for 16 years. And I kinda’ gave myself the authority to do that because I grew up here. It’s still my home.

I did a lot of research in Sydney’s libraries for six months reading all the books I could get on Melbourne. One month before the tours started here, I just immersed myself in the museums and the government-run tours in public buildings like the Town Hall and Parliament. Just trying to soak in all the information. And for fun, my girlfriend and I took the trams and trains to the end of line and back.

We set the first tour date for the first week of October. I had to wait for the AFL (Australian Football League) to be over so I could focus on the tours! Once we started, I was the only tour guide and I was committed to doing the tours every day until a new person was trained. We now have eight guides.

Was there anything that fascinated you during your research?

The dark side of the city. And I don’t mean the crime. I mean the dark sides of the Gold Rush and the Marvellous Melbourne growth. And then once I started the tours and unpacked Melbourne’s history, it was the dark side of colonisation.

How did you choose what to feature on the tour?

We decided on a start location at the State Library and a finish location at Hamer Hall, and then we considered the must sees in Melbourne, which are essentially the major landmarks, the laneway cafes and the buildings on Spring Street like Parliament and Princess Theatre. Then we planned the route and I wrote a 10,000-word script for myself, which I had to learn by heart. And then it was jumping in at the deep end.

Has your script changed much over the years?

Quite a bit. There are stories that we’ve cut out to put other things in. The script can’t be more than 10,000 words because every five minutes adds on. There used to be a bombing story on Russell Street, which was an important part of Melbourne’s history but we found that it didn’t fit with everything else. The other story we took out was about the underbelly crime. I quite liked that story but feedback from other guides was that it didn’t hit the spot.

Let’s hear the underbelly crime story?

I haven’t told it for a couple of years, actually. We’d stop near St. Paul’s Cathedral, I would point out the police cars on Flinders Street and Swanston Street and lead into the crime story. Something about amphetamine drugs coming in through the ports of Melbourne and causing gang violence that killed 14 people within 10 years.

People seemed to like that dark side of the city. The South Americans would often roll their eyes so I would have a punch line acknowledging that it’s nothing compared to Mexico. It was a fun story. I wish I could remember it properly for you but I can’t. It’s amazing how it’s lost in the background of my memory!

The Melbourne East Police Station on Flinders Lane covers 13 precincts in the CBD’s east that are bound by Victoria Parade, Hoddle Street, Citylink along the Yarra River and Elizabeth Street.

Do you get many Melburnians on the tour?

About 1 per cent. There are also Australian domestic travellers. The Melburnians really enjoy it because there are some great stories that they haven’t heard and the history is presented differently to what was taught in primary schools. And the other Australians love it because they can put pieces together and understand their own history in Perth or Sydney or Brisbane.

Which is your favourite story?

I have two. One is the four-minute story I tell in Carlton Gardens and the other is about the Eureka Rebellion.

How does the I’m Free Tours contribute to the city of Melbourne aside from the obvious?

Tours can cost up to $30 or more. Backpackers and young people see that upfront cost and think oh, I can just walk around by myself. But they are comfortable with our model, which means we capture a lot of people who have never done a tour before.

A lot of these young people sometimes don’t tip or leave just five dollars but that’s not as important as the fact that they will go back to their own countries knowing a lot more about Melbourne than they ever did. In three and a half years, our tours have taken 100,000 people around Melbourne. That means we’re planting seeds for the future prosperity of Melbourne. That’s how I see it!

What do you wish more tourists knew about Melbourne?

That we’re not mono-cultural like many of them think. We’re a microcosm of just about every culture in the world here. People are surprised to see a lot of Asians in the city. I get asked quite a bit about it and once I’ve explained our geographic location, our need for growth and our history of migration, it’s quite obvious why we are the way we are. People have this image of Melbourne from tourism marketing, movies and TV that isn’t the reality of the city.

Melbourne CBD sits on top of a big water catchment the size of about 150 football fields. The creek running beneath Elizabeth Street (above) was originally known as Williams Creek and was prone to flooding in winter. The biggest flooding took place in 1972, when an hour of heavy rainfall caused waters to rise to an estimated height of one and a half meters on Elizabeth Street.

What do you think Melburnians don’t see when they move through the city?

They assume that Melbourne is flat but if you stand at certain parts of the city you will notice its subtle contours. And then you can imagine where the creeks and rivers flow. They’re all underground now but still flowing.

There are also several hills in the city. One was removed near Southern Cross Station around the 1880s. If you’re up near the Parliament near Lonsdale Street and Nicholson Street, you’ll get a blast of cold wind on particular days, but when you walk slightly down that hill, you won’t get it anymore. I quite like looking down from Bourke Hill and seeing the street go down and back up on Elizabeth Street. There is an underground creek that once ran along Elizabeth Street.

What do you hope will change in the city?

As clean as it looks, Melbourne is actually a filthy city. We just hide the filth. Just cart the rubbish to a tip we can’t see and everything else goes into drains and flows into creeks. What I use as a yardstick is what it would take for the Yarra to run clear again.

In A Snap

Favourite building: The William Barak building at the north end of Swanston Street.

Favourite tram route: The 96. That’s East Brunswick all the way through the city to St. Kilda Beach.

Favourite café: Switchboard on Collins Street.

Favourite tour: Melbourne Walks by Meyer Eidelson.

Favourite history book on Melbourne: 1835 by James Boyce.

Inside Melbourne should interview…I think there are people on the street who really see more than others like The Big Issue vendors and the homeless. And they would have some interesting feedback on what goes on. They’re part of the heartbeat of Melbourne.


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