Friday, 31 May 2013

Road Trip - The Amazing Great Ocean Road

We gratefully took possession of Paul’s Dad’s car (thank you Henry) and were finally independently mobile.  We had enjoyed our time in Adelaide; I finally met my in-laws and Paul was surprised at how much the city had changed since he was last there almost 20 years ago.
But we were now on our final leg.  A road trip (something we hadn’t done in our months of travelling) independent of anyone else with our own mode of transport.  We were heading up into the Grampians and then along one of the finest and most spectacular coastal highways of the world, the Great Ocean Road.

Heading up into the Grampians
We said our goodbyes and set off early on the Friday morning.  We were aiming to hit Melbourne early Sunday evening so that would give us 3 days and 2 nights to take in some of the sights along the way.

We wound our way east through the Adelaide hills, passing vineyards and smallholdings, and as we headed towards Hamilton, in the southern Grampians, the scenery became flat, the farms more isolated and the kangaroos more prolific. 

The mist made the burned Eucalyptus forest
very atmospheric
Just before we reached the border with Victoria, we drove through forests of pine trees and this was where I saw my first black cockatoos.  They are enormous, about 2 feet tall, and fly about in noisy flocks.  They are common in pine trees because they particularly like the cones (according to Paul “David Attenborough” Underwood).  The woodlands are commercial and as soon as we reached the state border with Victoria, the pine forests ended and the landscape returned to farmland, mainly pasture with lots of sheep and cows, and the inevitable gum trees.

We stopped off at various places along the way and try as I might, I couldn’t stop being excited every time I saw a kangaroo or wallaby.  They are so alien to me, so weird looking, with their massive muscular rear legs which propel them along with amazing grace, but short little front paws which make them look slightly deformed.  And their heads are so small which goes some way to account for the lack of brainpower.  They do have a rather alarming habit of hopping alongside you on the highway and then suddenly and without warning attempting propensity to hop along the road beside you before launching themselves in front of moving vehicles, hence the large number of dead roos you see on the roadside.  I had been warned of this deadly habit but was still surprised when it actually happened to us.  Luckily, the grey kangaroo in question stopped himself just in time, barked at us rather rudely before bouncing off into the undergrowth.

We also saw emus but, as usual, by the time I fished the camera out, they had walked off into the undergrowth, very well camouflaged with their dark feathers.  There were about 3 of them and they looked like they were only babies.  

The view we were promised...
As we headed further east it began to get dark so we decided that, rather than to head up to Halls Gap on the first evening which had been our original plan, we would stop in Hamilton and then head north the following morning.  We had at least made it over the border into Victoria after several hours driving and it felt as if we had made some progress.

We hadn’t researched our trip at all but had our trusty GPS, which we nicknamed Gladys, and she was able to guide us along our desired route, and also able to direct us to various hotel and motel facilities available in the vicinity.

It didn't take us long before we found a relatively (for Australia) cheap motel in town called the Caledonian Pub and Motel, we checked in, parked up, and unloaded our rucksacks.  We had already stocked up on cider and wine and so settled in for the evening.  It was fairly chilly, but smoking being outlawed in almost every building throughout Australia, we spent most of the evening sat outside on the bench smoking but freezing our butts off (no pun intended).
...and the view actually got!

We had an early night and the following morning opted for a McDonalds breakfast, it being one of the cheapest options around.  We were tickled by the guy at the drive through window who asked for a Whopper and was politely advised that McDonalds don’t actually seller Whoppers!  Although they are not sold at Burger King, not in South Australia anyway, as here Burger King is known as Hungry Jacks.  Exactly the same logo and menu but different name – another snippet of useless information!

After our McMuffins and coffees, we set off through the southern Grampians and headed up to Halls Gap which is the largest city in the Grampians National Park and where we expected we would find lots of tourist information.

The waterfall viewed from above
As it turned out, we were glad we postponed the drive and opted to stop in Hamilton when it got dark the night before otherwise we would have missed the spectacular scenery.

We followed the Grampians Road which is the tourist route that takes you up through the hills into the mountains.  We saw more kangaroos and despite lots of signs for koalas, we didn’t a single koala bear.  They are apparently difficult to spot because they are well camouflaged in the eucalyptus trees and don’t move much except in the early morning and dusk.  There was also evidence of forest fires as we travelled up to Halls Gap which apparently explained the dearth of koalas.  Apparently koalas aren’t very quick on their paws and sadly many perish in the fires.   So I continued to search in vain for sight of a single koala as we travelled through the forests of gum trees but remained disappointed.
The really long pier at Beachport
London Bridge

As we followed the road up, we drove through patches of mist and fog and it became apparent that it wasn’t going to be the best weather for viewing the surrounding countryside from the top of a mountain.

We stopped off at Lake Bellfield and as we drove off down the narrow unmade road leading to the lake we saw lots of kangaroos (but alas, no koalas).  We parked the car in the car park which was empty apart from 2 other vehicles, and went for a wander along the shore.  It was cloudy and drizzly so it wasn’t as spectacular as I am sure it can be but we saw quite a few ducks and other waterfowl and on our way back to the car, bumped into another little group of kangaroos.  We managed to get quite close before they all decided to up sticks and hop into the trees out of sight.

Paul, in a contemplative mood...
As we headed further north into the granite mountains the scenery was quite spectacular and it was a beautiful drive. 

We reached Halls Gap at around lunchtime and went in search of tourist information from the office on the main road.  The town was very quiet but we kept having to remind ourselves that it was winter and out of season.  Although quite chilly, we were quite lucky with the weather in that we didn't get rained on every time we climbed out of the car.

We picked up a few leaflets about the Grampians National Park and also the Great Ocean Road but they mostly contained information about activities and destinations you have to pay for and all we wanted was to find a few scenic places on the way.  The information is really geared towards people spending a good few days in the area whereas we were intending to spend a few hours there before heading down to the coast.

After buying a takeaway lunch in a café on the high road which we ate in the car, we decided just to head up to one of the waterfalls and see where the road would take us.

The Twelve Apostles (well some of them!)
Once again, we found ourselves driving alternatively through fog and mist which would clear for a few miles and then descend upon us again.  Although not ideal weather conditions for the purpose of our trip, it was atmospheric nonetheless.

We took a detour from the main road and headed towards a signed lookout point and prepared to be disappointed.  As we followed the road we hit some mist which stubbornly wouldn’t lift.  We reached our destination, parked the car in the deserted car park, and decided we would follow the path anyway and see what we could see, if anything. 

It was just as well we had prepared ourselves for disappointment because, rather than the amazing vista promised on the information board, we were presented with a wall of cloud.  The mist clung to the side of the mountain and we could absolutely nothing of the advertised view.  It made us realise just how lucky we had been throughout our trip, in places like Wulingyuan, where we had time to spend and even if some days were misty and drizzly, we had other sunny and clear days which afforded us the opportunity to experience the amazing views from the tops of the mountains.  As we gazed into the low cloud we realised our luck had just about run out on that score!

Looking east from the Twelve Apostles
From there we headed up to the waterfall and luckily we were not disappointed.  The mist didn’t reach into the valley where the waterfall was situated and so we had a good view from the path at the top.  We didn’t bother climbing down to the bottom as we were relatively short of time (and energy) and it was a bit chilly.

It was a lovely walk around the forest and, again, there was evidence of forest fires (and no evidence of koalas bears) but we saw more kangaroos.  Walking through the forest the sweet smell of the eucalyptus was everywhere and was beginning to epitomize Australian woodland for me.

We headed back down to Halls Gap and back down the Grampian Road through the mountains again, and enjoyed the scenery once again before hitting the coast. 

The Twelve Apostles (again)
The drive to the sea was only an hour or so and we first stopped off at Beachport which is a very small town with a very long pier.  Before going for a walk along the pier, we had an enormous portion of takeaway fish and chips each from the café on the seafront which was just about to close for the day at 3.00pm. I have to say, we were impressed at the quality of the food because Paul had warned me that you couldn’t get traditional fish and chips in Australia but clearly this is another improvement since he was last here 20 years ago.

We couldn’t finish all our chips so Paul had the bright idea that he would feed the seagulls.  There followed seagull mayhem as we sat in the car feeding seagulls by hand, watching them land on the bonnet, fighting amongst themselves for the best position, and hearing them sliding about all over the roof.  We then remembered what comes with lots of seagulls, and that’s a lot of seagull shit and, right enough, the car was covered in it.  Luckily it rained over the next couple of days and it washed off. 

The Great Ocean Road living up to its name...
The seagulls devoured the chips and we got out of the car to walk along the pier.  As we opened the door, about 30 or 40 birds flew up and away and we saw exactly how much guano that many seagulls can produce in a relatively short space of time.

We then wandered along Beachport's old long wooden pier, wrapping our fleeces around us against the chilly wind.  It is a working pier where locals fish for crayfish but we were there out of season so we only saw one lone fisherman half way along the pier with a few rods.  Paul had a fisherman to fisherman chat with him which was pretty monosyllabic but friendly enough.  I think the general consensus was that they weren’t biting today.  You had to admire him though for standing out there in the biting wind for hours with little or no reward.

...and again...
We walked all the way to the end of the pier and back before heading back to the car.  We set off again but hadn’t decided where to stop for the night.  Port Fairy was the next town and is where the Great Ocean Road officially begins.  We considered stopping here and ventured off the main road into town for a look around.  It was a very pretty little town but we decided not to stay.  It was small, likely to be expensive, and Paul decided he wanted to travel a little bit further before he stopped driving for the day.  We only had one more day and wanted to have enough time to see as much of the Great Ocean Road which feeling too rushed.

...and again!
We did have a break for about half an hour in Port Fairy where we pulled up in front of the beach.  Paul tried to get forty winks because he was a bit tired.  This part of the road wasn’t particularly inspiring and he had been driving for hours on end for two days now.  As he tried to get a bit of shuteye I went for a walk on the deserted beach and was rewarded with a stunning view.  The beach stretched both ways for as far as the eye can see and as it was the first day of winter, there was nobody about.  I could only imagine how amazing it would have been on a sunny spring or summer’s day, and how busy full of people walking their dogs and out with their kids.

Once Paul was rested we headed back to the main road.  As we drove along, it started to get dark and we started to notice that there were a lot of frogs trying to cross the road.  This actually went on for miles, frogs hopping from one side of the road to another, and we must have squashed loads of them but there really was nothing we could do to avoid them.  

We eventually passed through the frog epidemic and ended up in Warrnambool, which is one of the largest towns along the Great Ocean Road and which I still can’t pronounce.  We asked Gladys for motel suggestions and although we dismissed a lot of them because they didn’t have restaurants attached, we found one without her help which did have a restaurant but we ended up not eating anyway.  We had stuffed ourselves earlier and couldn't summon up an appetite but the option was there if we wanted it.  Had it not been you can bet your bottom dollar we would have been starving! We did however stick to our ritual of sitting outside having a couple of beers but again we weren't late as we wanted to get an early start. 

The deserted beach I wandered along while Paul
tried to get 40 winks
The next morning we again headed to McDonalds for breakfast.  We were beginning to actually think about our budget, not least because Australia is so expensive compared to south east Asia but also because we were spending the British pound and the exchange rate wasn't all that favourable.  In fact, it is so bad that when you convert it back into sterling it makes your eyes water.  The average breakfast at an average café will set you back $24 – about £18.  We know we have to stop thinking in pounds but it’s difficult when you’re not yet earning the Aussie dollar.

After a hearty McDonalds breakfast we finally set off along the famous Great Ocean Road.  I have to say we were a little disappointed for the first stretch because the actual road doesn’t follow the ocean, not so that you can see it anyway.  Every so often you catch a glimpse of the water but mostly you are following a long sweeping road passing through lush green countryside.  It’s not unpleasant or dull by any means but at that point just doesn’t seem to live up to its name.

More fantastic views along the road
On this stretch, at various intervals, you are directed off the road towards various places of interest along the way such as Bay of Islands, Bay of Martyrs, Lochard Gorge, London Bridge, the Arch, the Grotto, and Gibsons Steps.  We stopped at all of these and took the opportunity to walk along the paths through sand dunes and coastal scrub, along cliff paths where you can view the various limestone stacks rising out of the sea.  It is from some of these points that you can gaze eastwards towards the famous Twelve Apostles but each of the locations a worth a stop in their own right.   

The south coast is also famous for the sites of lots of shipwrecks and when you see how wild the water is, it is easy to see how in the 18th century huge ships were hurled against the cliffs with ease by the enormous waves.

Just in case we were in any doubt.
We kept bumping into the same people who were taking the same route, and we also kept seeing the same sign, reminding tourists that in Australia you drive on the left.  We wondered why we had not seen these signs until now.  We would have thought that it would have been more appropriate to display these signs on the roads leaving the airport rather than randomly placing them in tourist locations which are effectively in the middle of nowhere.  Frankly, if any tourist needed reminding at this stage that you drive on the left in Australia, there's no hope.

We also saw the odd sign warning of kangaroos and signs insisting we would see koalas, which were beginning to annoy me, because I knew we didn’t have a cat in hell’s chance of seeing one,

Mine! Mine! Mine!
And of course, there was the most famous sight of all; the Twelve Apostles.  There is an information centre here and it was quite busy at this spot, but we could only imagine how busy it was in the summer months.  And it is famous for a reason, the views along the coast east and west are spectacular, the ocean wild and treacherous, with massive breakers, white surf, and waves crashing dramatically onto the beach or against the rocks.  It really was stunning.

All along the coast are spots like this but this was arguably the best view.  You could see for miles along the coast in both directions and looking south it is hard to comprehend there is nothing between where you were standing and the Antarctic.  It is also very desolate but very beautiful and quite magnificent.

Like a scene out of Hitchcock film!
We stayed for a little while, grabbed an iced coffee from the shop and then headed off west again.   We continued along the Great Ocean Road as it began to follow the coast more and more so we could see the ocean stretching ahead or beside us for long periods of time, before the road wound back inland for a few miles. 

Once we reached Cape Otway and started following the road on its north east trek towards Melbourne, the road starts to hug the coast and it is here that it is just simply amazing.  It is a slow road because the road is hilly, it twists and turns, and has maximum speed limits in places of 25km per hour.  However, at this point the road really lives up to its name in no uncertain terms.  The fact that you have to take your time means that, even if you are driving, you get to take in some of the scenery.  It was jaw-droppingly gorgeous and certainly exceeded our expectations.

Scary birds.
We reached the end of the coastal route and then took the Princes Highway, the quick route, to Melbourne.  As we drove from the outer suburbs into central Melbourne the skyline loomed ahead of us.  It was exciting to be arriving in the city which we would be making our home.  With the help of our trusty Gladys we were guided to Fitzroy Street in St Kilda where we took possession of the keys to the apartment we had rented for 5 days.  We negotiated our way around the one way roads, parked the car, and walked 5 minutes to our apartment in Acland Street.  We were home, or at least, we were in the city that would be our home.

We just had to find somewhere to live and jobs.  It was all becoming a little daunting.
More scary birds

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