It was 2011 and we’d been married two years. We were both working in the corporate sector and feeling rather restless. It seemed like no better time to stop putting off the thing we talked about doing ‘one day’. So we quit our day jobs and hatched a plan to travel overseas for eight months.
Almost half of our trip would be spent in East Africa. We were excited by the prospect of visiting a new continent, and we were itching to see the region’s much talked-about wildlife.
We booked ourselves into a camping tour through Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. We went trekking to see mountain gorillas and spent a few weeks living with a local family in a small Maasai village called Le Manyatta (meaning ‘protected place’ in the Maa language). Our experiences seemed so far removed from our lives in Melbourne, but they gave us a great appreciation for East Africa and its people.
But while travel has the ability to make you live more fully in the present, it also has an uncanny way of making you think a lot about the future. It was on our last night in East Africa, in the city of Arusha, Tanzania, that our conversation turned to our return to Melbourne, and the concept of ‘living without limitations’. Opening a bar became part of our plans, even though it would take almost three years to make our dreams a reality.
In July 2014 we signed the lease for a two level venue, (formerly the home of Tony Starr’s Kitten Club) in Little Collins St. We renovated for six weeks solid, and many of our dear family and friends pitched in to help us get the job done. We had a goal to create a warm and inviting space where earthy colours and textures would pay tribute to East Africa.
Our kitchen menu, designed by consulting chef Andy Mac (Head Chef at Axil Coffee Roasters), takes inspiration from the African continent by celebrating meat (‘cos they love it!), food designed for sharing and common preserving techniques such as smoking and dehydration. From pork and cinnamon cigars to house-cured biltong and sticky chicken ribs, as well as a range of vegetarian snacks, we like to think of the menu as having broad appeal.
The all important drinks menu features curated signature cocktails, offering guests the chance to sample unique and intriguing flavor combinations, influenced by our travels. ‘Ginger Lesson’ is a personal favourite – a fiery yet accessible cocktail made from West Winds Sabre gin, house-made spiced ginger syrup, Montenegro and citrus. This takes us back to staying with the family in Arusha, who would prepare ‘Chai’ for us daily – a ginger heavy, sweet tea full of goodness!
Then there’s the ‘Mzungu Martini’, our unique take on the Espresso Martini, almost a dessert in itself, concocted from Green Island spiced rum, Creme de Mure, espresso and African liqueur Amarula. The first time we had Amarula whilst next to a camp fire in Zambia we were immediately hooked to its milky, berry flavour.
During our East Africa tour, the first task upon arriving at camps was to grab a beer, (only sometimes refrigerated), and put up our tent. This turned out to be a good form of research, and a rewarding experience. The bar stocks a distinctive range of rare and imported African beers and ciders, ranging from East Africa’s biggest brand, the Kenyan Tusker Lager, which offers flavours of grainy malts, sweet corn, grass, and a hint of earthy bitterness, to the lesser known St George Amber Ale from Ethiopia which has chocolate, and malty notes.
After seeing first-hand the challenges faced by many communities in East Africa, we are determined that polēpolē would give something back to the region that inspired it. Through sales of African beers and ciders, we are supporting two not-for-profit organisations – YGAP and Women for Women in Africa – which both do amazing work in developing communities.
Women for Women in Africa provides support to the people of Kibera, Africa’s largest slum. With over a million residents, Kibera is located on the fringes of Nairobi. Originally the Kenyan government set it up after WWI as an interim solution, however Kibera still exists to this day, growing in population.
YGAP’s focus is a bit different to most traditional charities. The organisation concentrates its efforts on supporting social entrepreneurs in developing countries to come up with solutions to their own problems, but with a helping hand and investment from people in wealthier countries.
While it’s been a long journey between our travels through East Africa and the opening of polēpolē, it’s very satisfying that we’ve been able to translate our initial inspiration into a fully functioning bar. Our next step will be to renovate the seconf level of the building into an amazing cocktail bar, again drawing inspiration from our time in Africa. It would be great to head over there for more research; however this will have to wait until we are ready to climb ‘Kili’ in late 2015.
POLĒPOLĒ BAR + KITCHEN
Bar, Australian, African
Level 1, 267 Little Collins St Melbourne
03 9650 2811
Open daily from 4pm www.polepolebar.com.au