I had heard great things about the Great Ocean Road and had become a little nervous that It had been overhyped to the point where it could only be a disappointment. Regardless, I was here now and determined to enjoy the last leg of my mainland Australia adventure. Excited about the journey which lay ahead - or unable to sleep due to the busy road running right behind my tent - I woke early and decided to hit the road straight away. Not quite sure where the Great Ocean Road started I headed first to a small town named Barwon Heads - which appeared from the (not very good) map to be the start - only to discover that I had driven pretty much in to a dead end. Over breakfast on the windswept beach I consult my map again and, still unable to work out where the road started, I figured it wasn't so important to see the entire road in any case and decide I will head in the general direction and intersect the road later. I pointed the car back the way I'd come and headed back towards Geelong before picking up the Surfcoast Highway to the outskirts of Torquay where, finally, I inadvertently stumbled across a sign announcing the official start of the Great Ocean Road. It may have taken an hour or so longer than planned but, at last, I was up and running!
The Great Ocean Road is a 273km long stretch of road which runs - as I now discovered - from Torquay in the east to Warmambool in the west. It was constructed just after the end of the Great War by 3,000 returned servicemen as a living memorial to those who were left behind. When I visited Canberra on Sunday I had been disappointed to learn that there was no Remembrance Sunday parade and, for a short time, I considered hanging around for a couple of days until Armistice Day to pay my respects but, as eleven o'clock came around, I was pleased that I hadn't. Sitting atop a cliff enjoying a spectacular view that all those brave men, left behind in Europe, would never get to see again seemed far more poignant and I couldn't help but shed a small tear.
Running through vast areas of steep coastal mountains, it is a miracle that the road was ever finished and it is a true testament to the determination of those who built it. Of course, given it was built by men freshly returned from the battlefields of Europe, it must have seemed like a holiday camp even though they were working with nothing more than pick and shovel. It was intended to stand as a ‘living memorial' to those who didn't make it home and as I headed west, breathing in the fresh sea air mixed with the lingering smell of the dense forest to my right, it was clear to see they'd done each and every one of them proud.
I stopped for lunch at Aireys Inlet and found myself joining a tour of the Split Point Lighthouse - which was fun and offered some fantastic views of the stunning coastline - before heading up into the Great Otway National Park. This was a huge park, full of waterfalls and wonderful short to medium length hikes: I was in heaven. I ended the day racing to reach the Kennett River Campground before the sun set and arrived with impeccable timing. Watched by a colony of koalas in the eucalyptus trees overlooking me, I quickly built my tent before forging a path through the undergrowth towards the sound of crashing waves. Within ten or twenty metres I found myself stood in a sandy bay looking out over the Southern Ocean towards a spectacular fiery red sunset. As I explored the nearby rocky headland by moonlight I realised I was smiling as I mentally replayed a perfect day. Progress had been slow - it had taken me 12 hours to drive the 68km from Torquay - and I had taken far too many photos but I now realised why everyone I had met had been so excited when talking about the Great Ocean Road. It is truly spectacular.
After a restful night, lulled to sleep by those crashing ocean waves, it was back into the car to continue my exploration of the Otway Ranges. After enjoying a wander through the giant ferns and huge old trees of the Maits Rest Rainforest Trail I headed out to visit the Cape Otway Lightstation but, after a long drive along an unpaved road, I was saddened to arrive and be confronted by bus loads of visitors. After a mooch along a couple of trails which started from the parking lot I decided that I couldn't face the crowds so instead set off to find some peace. After a couple of false starts I soon found that peace as I found myself stood on a beautifully secluded stretch of beach - located a short drive along a random unsigned side road - where I celebrated my good fortune by having lunch.
Having returned the esky safely to the boot of the car it was onwards towards Port Campbell National Park. The limestone coast made for an interesting change of scene after the mountains & surf and, once again, I started to feel my progress slowing as I regularly found myself stopping for photos or to explore an intriguingly named roadside attraction. The highlight, of course, would be the internationally recognised Twelve Apostles which proved to be striking even though a count would ultimately prove that just nine of the limestone stacks remained! A short drive from there lay the Blowhole - which left me positively underwhelmed - and the historic (and very beautiful) Loch Ard Gorge.
I stopped one final time - at the formation known as London Arch (it was known previously as London Bridge until one of the arches collapsed into the sea) - before realising I'd seen enough limestone formations to last me for the rest of eternity and decided to press on and get some miles behind me. I finally reached the end of the Great Ocean Road outside the town of Warrnambool and was sad to realise that a wonderful adventure had drawn to a close. Worse than that, there was no certificate for having driven the road and survived: these Australians have a lot to learn!
A night in Narrawong was followed by a day of national parks. I managed a nice hike in Mount Richmond National Park but Lower Glenelg National Park proved to be a washout as I'd managed to pass it before I found the entrance. My next stop - Canunda, across the border in South Australia - was like many of the national parks in Australia in that there really isn't a whole lot to see. In fact my only reward for a long detour down a rough dirt road was a mouth full of particularly unforgiving flies; so much for the ‘spectacular dunes' promised by my guidebook! This seemed to me to be the perfect example of the differences between national parks here and those in North America; whilst here they are created to preserve the natural environment, in North America they are created with recreation in mind. Whilst what they do here is probably more worthy, it really isn't so much fun!
I would soon reach the town of Mount Gambier and set off to look for its famous Blue Lake. Being right on the edge of town it wasn't hard to find, nor was it hard to understand where it got its name. The brilliant cobalt blue water instantly took me back to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon but the location of the two couldn't be any different. Whilst the Blue Lake is on the edge of a town, Crater Lake is miles from anywhere. Both have their attractions and, whilst Crater Lake was more visually stimulating, I have to admit that the fact I could walk to town and buy a McDonalds if I so desired held some appeal too!
And so, having climbed the steep 192 metre track to visit the (closed) Centenary Tower, I did. The town was an interesting little place, full of characters. Whilst chatting with a local, I learned that the lake is quite unique in that it actually changes colour throughout the year: no-one is exactly sure why but it only retains its signature blue for three months of the year. Neither is anyone too sure when the volcano last erupted - estimates range between 28,000 and 4,000 years ago - and it struck me, given how little is known about the crater, is it really such a great idea that the entire town's water supply comes from the lake? Maybe it went some way to explaining the strange people that I'd met over lunch.
By now it was becoming obvious that I was falling behind and, if I was to make it to Adelaide before my onward flight, I would have to speed up. I continued my journey west along the Princes Highway, stopping mid-afternoon in the fascinating little fishing port and the town of Robe, but otherwise pushing on, pushing on. Several times I thought about stopping but now, maintaining an average speed somewhere in excess of 100km/h (no comment in case it's incriminating!), I just blew on past before I reached the outskirts of the town of Kingston SE where I absolutely positively had to stop.
Australia is known for its oversize roadside art: everyone knows Coffs Harbour for the giant banana alongside the highway and then there's big pineapples, big apples, big chickens, big guitars, big wine bottles... even a big boxing crocodile! But Kingston SE (no, I don't know what the SE is there for either: South East of South Australia, maybe?) has what, to me at least, must be the amazing! I don't know when the fad for these huge monstrosities caught on, nor where they were all made - I like to imagine they all came from one (very large) factory somewhere - but you can be sure that whoever made ‘Larry the Lobster', as he is known, is no longer in the business of making big things. Seems they misread the plans which clearly showed a big fibreglass lobster in feet and inches and went ahead and made him in metres. Now that, to me, seems to have been one very big mistake!
As I left Kingston SE, still smiling and shaking my head, I was quickly coming to the conclusion that something was going to have to give. Dropping my trip to Kangaroo Island was the obvious answer but I'd heard great things about the place and I was desperate to see it for myself. I pondered it as far as Meningie, on the outskirts of Coorong National Park, where local enquiries suggested a price of $160 for the ferry crossing. The decision was made: Kangaroo Island would remain on my ‘must see' list for a future visit.
I found a campground on the outskirts of Meningie where I spent the evening with a couple from the Netherlands who were about to embark on their own journey along the Great Ocean Road. I was quite jealous and, if I wasn't flying to Tasmania in a couple of days, would happily have turned around and gone with them. It had taken four very busy days to make it over from Melbourne but I had missed out a lot of stops and I could easily have taken three times as long and still been busy. The change in landscape - from the steep coastal mountains of the Great Ocean Road to the limestone cliffs of eastern Victoria to the sand dunes of South Australia - was surpassed only by the consistency of the people along the route who, without fail, were supremely friendly and welcoming.
The drive along the coast from Melbourne to Adelaide must surely rank amongst the best in the world. People rave about the Pacific Coast Highway in California but, and I know this is a bold statement, I would suggest that the Great Ocean Road is superior to a factor of ten and I can't understand why it isn't more popular with the army of Brits who visit Australia each year. The few Wicked Campers - the brightly coloured vehicle of choice for the backpacker - to be found along the route were almost exclusively driven by Germans or the Dutch which, looking back, probably goes some way to explaining the plethora of signs reminding you of the need to drive on the left.
As if unable to let go of the coast I decided to extend my options by heading out around the Fleurieu Peninsular on the promise that Victor Harbour is the Australian version of Blackpool complete with kitsch attractions and volatile locals who enjoy nothing more than a good punch-up after a couple of shandys. I couldn't resist but I didn't hang around there for long and left, shortly afterwards; cold, windswept and disappointed. It was time for Adelaide.
To get a grasp on the city I went first to the Mount Lofty Lookout which provides a panoramic vantage point from which you look down on the grid of streets below. The talk around me was ‘ooh, isn't it small' and ‘now I see why it only takes twenty minutes to walk across town' but, I have to be honest, it actually looked bigger than I expected and I felt a little daunted by it all and decided, before I tried to tackle the mean streets of Adelaide, I needed a little more scenery. I was in luck there as I was in one of the most green and picturesque areas in the country and I headed off on a fun drive along windy country lanes, passing vineyard after vineyard, towards the National Motor Museum in the small town of Birdwood.
Although, or perhaps because, the museum focused on the Australian automotive industry, I found enough to keep me riveted for a good few hours before I was finally kicked out when they closed the doors for the evening. I celebrated my arrival in Adelaide by leaving my tent in the car and splashing out on a cabin at a campground on the outskirts of the city. To have such luxuries as electric lights and heating was a real luxury; especially as the night turned out to be cold, windy and completely unseasonal. Money very well spent!
Early the following morning, unsure where to start my exploration of the city, I headed first to the home of cricket in the city: the Adelaide Oval. What I found was in stark contrast to the MCG in Melbourne but I found myself liking it a lot. As I stood beneath the old fashioned scoring tower I could sense the history of the place and could almost see the ghost of Bradman & Co. fending off the English attack in that infamous ‘Bodyline' test whose legacy still resonates. It says everything that even Adelaide - the city of churches and all that is good - was almost turned upside down as a full-blown riot threatened to break out. It remains one of the darkest moments in relations between the two nations; which says a lot given what we have done over the years!
Whilst the steel and glass of the towering MCG was impressive, the unspoilt grandeur and the greenery of the Adelaide Oval offered real charm and atmosphere. After the magnificent English victory in the 2005 Ashes series in England I had so very nearly made it down to Australia to watch the return and Adelaide was one of the two tests that I would have seen. At the time I wasn't sad to miss out as we got a thorough spanking but now I felt desperately sad that I missed out - the atmosphere in that ground would have been fantastic. In many ways I found the two grounds a good metaphor for the two cities: Melbourne big, bold and trying to impress the world with its modernity, whilst Adelaide remains proud of its history and unembarrassed by its country-town origins. Both have their place of course but, in this modern world, I found Adelaide refreshing in so many ways.
It proved true: you could walk from one side to the other in twenty minutes, but what a fine twenty minutes they were. The green of the parks and trees through the city sat easy on the eye alongside the intriguing mix of classic and contemporary architecture where, until Melbourne poached the race, Formula One cars would scream annually. The simple grid layout of the city was a contrast to the windy roads in the hills above and I found myself wishing that I had more time to explore. Alas -although managing to squeeze in a visit to the excellent Maritime Museum and a wander through the rejuvenated port area - my time in mainland Australia had come to its end. It was a sad moment but, as I made my way to the home of Leonie and Micky Falzon who would be my hosts for my final evening, I couldn't help but look back over the past three months and smile. It had been one hell of a ride and, whilst I was sad to be leaving, I did so with very happy memories and a real desire to return soon.
Originally published on - and Copyright retained by - Boogity, Boogity, Boogity
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