I had expected something more exciting than what I got. Having taken long cross-country trips in other countries, I had somehow presumed that the countryside between Sydney and Melbourne would be immensely dramatic and beautiful. In reality, it was 12hrs of a mix of rural and urban landscapes that were nondescript and forgettable. The sky was blue as we travelled across New South Wales, but slowly the clouds drifted in, and as if knowingly, became very dense around the state border with Victoria. After several hours, I questioned why I hadn’t flown. The train pulled into the outskirts of Melbourne in darkness, and after failing to get my bearings, I was thankful that I didn’t have to go far. Getting off the train at Southern Cross station, I merely had to round a few corners to catch the bus out to the airport. I checked into the motel, and waited, and waited. Finally I got the call I was waiting for: my partner and his friend had arrived, and we could start our holiday together.
Picking up our hire car, the 3 of us wandered around the streets of Melbourne in search of breakfast. Renowned for its food options, we eventually settled on a pancake parlour downstairs on Bourke Street. Filled with fuel for the day, we set off on the long drive to Phillip Island. Travelling with 2 blokes that were keen on motor racing, it seemed inevitable that we should head to Phillip Island where the Grand Prix circuit was. As it turned out, right next door was a miniature version of the track for go-karting, so we signed up and waited our turn. I’m not very good at go-karting. I certainly like to think that I am better than I actually am, but aside from the 2 women who were clearly scared of everyone buzzing past them, I was effectively last of the main group of competitors. I was gutted, especially because my partner likes to remind me how terrible I am at it. Further along the island at the western tip is Nobbies centre where there is a seal viewing platform. It was overcast, and cold compared to what I’d been used to in Sydney, and the seals were on a rock offshore, making them difficult to see. It was too early to view the penguins coming ashore so we headed back towards Melbourne and our city-centre apartment.
Melbourne was noticeably colder than it had been in Sydney, and the weather hung cloudy and grey over the city the next morning. The 3 of us took a wander along Flinders Walk which followed the north bank of the Yarra river west from Birrarung Marr Park. I was struck immediately by the strange and colourful artwork and statues that popped up across open spaces in the city. The city had a totally different vibe to Sydney, and it oozed culture. After stretching our legs, we packed into the hire car and headed first west, then south round the expanse of Port Phillip Bay, skirting Geelong and joining the Great Ocean Road at Torquay. Torquay is infamous for its surfing culture, and the streets and waterfront were busy with people. West of here, we stopped at Bell’s Beach, the filming location of the final scene for Keanu Reeve’s surfing movie Point Break. The surf was up and everywhere we looked people were riding the waves. We spent a little time at another beach just round the coast before heading west to Anglesea.
On negotiating the final corners en route to Anglesea, we found ourselves amidst a mass of cyclists. They were on the road, parked at the side, and filling the town’s cafes. There was little place to stop amidst the crowds, so we pushed onwards, the road hugging the coast for large sections. At Airey’s Inlet, we stopped to visit the Airey’s lighthouse. A proud lighthouse, it stood tall near the rocks being battered by the rough sea of the Bass Strait. It was a pretty, well maintained lighthouse, and it was only a year later, after reading an article that I realised that this was the lighthouse from a children’s television programme that I had loved growing up: Round the Twist. I have no idea how popular it was in its native Australia, but I know that in the UK it was a hit: half an hour of silliness based around a haunted lighthouse that could create all sorts of chaos for the family of inhabitants, a single father with his three children. Looking back at photos, I can indeed see that it is that lighthouse, but at the time, the surrounding vegetation and buildings which were missing on the programme, hid the history of the place. For my partner and his friend, it was probably a good thing that I didn’t know the connection at the time, as I would have probably begged to stay longer, taken more photos, and generally made them cringe whilst I ran around singing ‘have you ever, ever felt like this? Like strange things happen, are you going round the twist?‘ As it was, we had a lot of kilometers to travel, and not much time to do it in, so we pressed on.
The road continued to hug the coastline for some time, though we could see some rainclouds closing in ahead of us. It was still relatively grey behind us, but up ahead, it was looking distinctly black. At Devil’s Elbow, after a brief respite to take in the view, the road curled inland and looped back on itself before hitting the coast again. Lorne came and went, and the road kept going as far as we could see, curling along the coastline. The rain clouds grew closer, but even without the sunshine to brighten everything, the coastline still appeared very dramatic and very beautiful. Passing through various settlements without stopping, we finally took a breather near Kennet River. I had read that this was a good place to go looking for koalas and we headed up a dirt track behind the local caravan park. Looking up into the trees, everything looked dark and grey amongst the grey sky backing it all, and it was difficult to make out anything. We followed the road up the hill, and got a surprise when a wallaby jumped around the bushes, then eventually a koala was spotted. It was well camouflaged, but after getting an eye for them, on the way back down the road we saw loads. We had driven past many on the way up without seeing them, and now they were everywhere. Mostly, they were sleeping, but every now and again, one would move around amongst the branches, and I got giddy and excited for finally seeing them in the wild and in their native habitat.
The last section of our long drive for the day continued amidst intermittent rain showers. We managed to get somewhere to stay in Apollo Bay, a lovely motel just across the road from a gorgeous expanse of beach. The boys settled into an afternoon of watching motor racing on the television, whilst I went out exploring. I’m always at my happiest by the sea. There’s nothing I love more than to pound the beach whilst the waves crash in next to me, and get lost in my thoughts and drift a million miles away. After the last rain shower that we had driven through, the sunshine finally broke through, and I walked the beach towards the boat harbour in sunshine. But just as I approached the boat shed, from nowhere appeared another lot of rain clouds and the heavens opened and dumped a ton of rain down on me. I got soaked. My partner rushed out in the car to come and pick me up, but I was quite happy wandering around, so I made my own way back to the motel. On my return after drying off, we took a drive to the Cape Otway lighthouse. Unfortunately, after winding along the long road to get there, we arrived after closing time, and couldn’t even get near the lighthouse, viewing only the top of it in the distance through the bushes. On the drive back to Apollo Bay we found lots of koalas overhead in the trees, and we spent some time watching them lazing about in the branches.
The following day we backtracked slightly to Skenes Creek to take the inland road to visit the Otway Fly. It was a long drive through immense thick beech forest, a stark contrast to the openness of the ocean road that we had followed until now. The Otway Fly was a relatively unique experience: a walk amongst the canopy of the forest giving a bird’s eye view of the trees and shrubbery below. There was also a dino walk detailing the species of dinosaur that have had fossils located in the region. Not long before there had been high winds blast through the region, and littered amongst the forest path was evidence of those trees that had succumbed to the pressure. Several months after visiting this place, a similar treetop attraction opened up in the South Island of New Zealand. Having visited both, the Victorian one is definitely the one to visit.
Rejoining the Great Ocean Road heading west, it remained inland for some time, finally swinging back towards the coast at Princetown where we stopped for lunch. Our first afternoon stop was near Gibson Steps, a viewing area which allowed us our first view of the sea stacks that make this coastline famous. The sea was relatively calm, but with no protection from the brunt of the Bass Strait, it is easy to see how rough seas shape this dramatic coastline. A little further along the coast is one of the area’s most famous and most photographed views: the 12 Apostles. I’m terrible company at famous sites: I’m obsessed with photographing things from every perceivable angle in the hope of getting that one photograph that amazes everyone. Mostly I just bore people who are subjected to looking at my holiday snaps, and I annoy whoever my travelling companion is. This may account for why I enjoy travelling on my own because then I can carry on with my hobby to my heart’s content. Thankfully my partner and his friend managed not to get too annoyed with me, although I did concede a little bit of ribbing, but like many places I go to, this was somewhere I’d seen in magazines and travel sites for years, and I was enjoying soaking up the essence of being there myself.
The afternoon was pressing on, and every few kilometres there was yet another reason to stop on the road, so my partner had to put his foot down and limit our rest stops. We parked up at Loch Ard Gorge and had a wander round the clifftop walks there, viewing more sea stacks, and I climbed down the steps to the beach within the gorge. We had a quick break at Port Campbell and continued on west to London Arch (what used to be London Bridge before the section connecting it to the mainland broke off a few years ago). There was a seal hauled up on the beach having a snooze, and further along the coast in the Bay of Islands region there was a plethora of long-beaked corellas. They were nesting on the cliffs of the numerous sea stacks that littered the coastline. Eventually, in the lowering sun, we reached the end of the Great Ocean Road, turned onto the Princes Highway, and reached our final destination of Port Fairy.
We had a lovely little cabin near the Moyne River and there was a beautiful sunset which I watched whilst wandering back from the beach and marina. The following day, we crossed over to Griffith Island which is attached to the mainland by a man-made walkway. This has created a couple of canal-like structures to allow a marina to be built, and allows access to the island which is a bird sanctuary. I had read in our guidebook that the island was also home to a small colony of swamp wallabies, but the vegetation was so thick that I looked in vain. Halfway round the island, the boys were walking ahead of me when I spotted one off to their left. They completely overlooked it and I excitedly called out to them. The wallaby simply regarded us for a while before sitting back down, and it was clear to see how well camouflaged they were when sitting down. We saw a couple more from a distance on the return leg back to Port Fairy, and then there was the long drive back to Melbourne.
My partner flew back to Christchurch early the next morning, and I left his friend to spend some time with his sister who lives near the city. I took a train to Frankston, and then caught a bus out to the Mornington Peninsula town of Sorrento. It was a lovely drive for the final section, and Melbourne looked so far away, barely visible across Port Phillip Bay on the distant horizon. After finding my accommodation down a back road, I dumped my bag and headed back into town and across the peninsula to Ocean Beach. Whilst Sorrento itself had been so calm and quiet, the wind was whipping up waves to slam on to the expanse of the unsheltered Ocean beach, facing onto the Bass Strait. The tide was in, meaning that I could only walk some sections of the coastal walk that linked the tip of the peninsula to Ocean beach. It was a wild and rugged coastline similar to what I’d seen along the Great Ocean Road, battered by the immense storms that can rage off the Bass Strait. It is a notoriously treacherous stretch of water, and I could see why. I followed the coast as far west as I could until the tide stopped me, then I backtracked and headed east until I came across a road that took me to Blairgowrie, the next town along from Sorrento. I cut back across the peninsula to the sheltered beach that faced onto Port Phillip Bay, and slowly made my way back to Sorrento. There were gallahs everywhere, a bird that I associated with the tv soap Neighbours, and I was amused to see so many of them feeding in the parks.
Whilst I was in Australia, one of the AFL players John McCarthy had tragically died by falling off a balcony at a hotel. Coming from Sorrento, his funeral was held in his home town, and on the day I was leaving, the town centre was closed off to allow a procession to pass through before his funeral service. I ate my breakfast at a cafe waiting for the bus, and everywhere I looked were fellow players who I’m sure were famous, but I had no idea who they were. Everyone wore black, and looked sombre, and there was a hush over the locals as they passed by. The bus dropped me back at Frankston station, and I again caught the train into Melbourne, checking into my hostel, and quickly jumping on a tram to St Kilda. Having loved another tv series shown in the UK, The Secret Lives of Us, which was set in St Kilda, I wandered around the streets and the beachfront, looking for places that seemed familiar. It had been several years since the programme had last aired, so nothing jogged my memory. It was a nice waterfront to walk around nonetheless and it afforded an alternate perspective of the Melbourne skyline which I could really appreciate for the first time. There was always some clouds overhead during my stay which seemed to grey the buildings somewhat. It was never going to have the harbour-front allure of Sydney, but there was certainly some charm in the place, and wandering along the Yarra river as the city lit up produced another stunning view of the place.
The weather couldn’t make up its mind for much of the rest of my stay in Melbourne. Clouds of varying density circled above, and threatened rain, sometimes following through with the threat. I spent a day wandering around the south aspect of the city, heading first along the south bank of the Yarra river towards the Botanical gardens. I spent some time wandering amongst the beautiful gardens and lakes, before following the King’s Domain down towards Queen Victoria gardens. Following the river downstream I decided to go up the distinctive Eureka Tower for an up high view of the city. Melbourne CBD is a tightly packed meshwork of streets and alleyways, with an overwhelming modern design to many of the buildings. However on closer inspection, nestled amongst these highrises are some surprisingly old fashioned buildings, which juxtapose with their modern neighbours. The Eureka Tower itself I felt jarred somewhat in the skyline, a rather odd looking building that stuck out like a sore thumb. Having said that, it did act as a handy directional marker when negotiating the criss-crossing streets of the city, and at its base I was amused with the giant bee sculptures that were crawling all over the walls of the building at its entrance.
The following day I had arranged to meet an old university friend at the Melbourne Show. It was a massive affair, immense barns full of livestock for judging, reams of fairground rides, food stalls, and shows and performances occurring at every turn. One of the things that summed up the craziness of the place was the sight of a man playing a guitar on the back of a bull at the entrance, and in one of the massive food halls, I made friends with a giant banana. My friend had 2 young girls, and it was interesting to experience it all through their eyes. Granted, the youngest one was too little to be aware of what was going on, but the older one who had been born in the Caribbean, was fascinated with the livestock. Time passed quickly but eventually it was too much for the little ones, and their mum took them home. I hung about for a few more hours to watch the night shows of stunt motorbikes and fireworks displays before catching the tram back to the city.
It was an early rise for a day trip to Wilson’s Promontory National Park. At over 200km away from Melbourne, it was a long drive, but I had joined a small tour group and we got about getting to know each other as the hours passed. It was showery as we approached the National Park, but we made a stop to see some kangaroos. There was an emu wandering about the shrubs as well, and the kangaroos were hunkering down against the weather, so they were relatively hidden from us. Further along the road, we made a stop in order to take a hike through the forest and up to a rocky viewpoint. On a good day, we would have soaked in a spectacular view along the coastline and out to sea. As it was, we got rained on at the summit whilst we ate our lunch, and the low cloud denied us of an extensive view. Nonetheless, it was still possible to see how pretty the place was and as we headed back down the track to the van, the sun broke free and stayed out for the rest of the trip. We walked down to Leonard Bay and enjoyed a stroll along the beach as the wind blew in from the sea. By now the clouds had lifted, and we could see Great Glennie Island in the distance offshore. At the far end of the beach, we followed the path up onto the rocky peninsula, and cut over the headland towards Tidal River. Tidal River itself is essentially a large campground that nestles on the southern bank of the river of the same name. The walk took us along the north bank upstream where I saw my first kookaburra. I love the simple things that make me happy like spending time out in nature and seeing wildlife that I’ve never seen before. On crossing the bridge over the river we happened upon a wombat out for a late afternoon stroll. He went about his business of mowing the grass nonchalantly, showing little care for the group of people stood around him photographing him from every angle. We stayed with him until eventually he crossed the path and disappeared under a bush. I was chuffed; it was my first wombat. Little was I to know that I would see scores of them over the coming days. We got a final wander along another of the beaches in the area before boarding the bus for the long drive back to Melbourne in the dark.
I spent several evenings in Melbourne sampling the amazing food that the city has to offer. There is simply too much choice. I had one of the most amazing Greek dishes ever at a restaurant in the Greek quarter where the owner insisted I get myself a Greek boyfriend (ironically my ex is Greek!). Another night I was undecided which style of food I wanted so I wandered through Chinatown only to find a Vietnamese street market down an alleyway. Every stall served a different food, and after eating one of the offerings, I worked my way down the whole alleyway, sampling the food at each stall. It was all so mouthwatering and to die for. The alleyway was packed with people squeezed into doorways and crammed against the neighbouring buildings waiting for and eating the delicious food. Another night it was the Italian quarter that was picked for dinner and during the day I wandered past cafes crammed full of people. It was unbelievable what was packed down some of the alleyways.
Eventually though it was time to bid Melbourne farewell. I had an early flight to catch to Hobart on Tasmania for the next leg of my Australia trip, and I was excited to be heading off to a place I’d dreamed about visiting for years.