The Great Aussie Road Trip Part 1: Melbourne to the Clare Valley

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October 23rd 2015
Published: October 23rd 2015
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Days 1-3

Day 1: Melbourne to Grampians National park

After goodbye’s with our Melbourne friends Yamuna, Ankit, and Ari we load into the van to begin our great 6000km Australian road trip. We have one big suitcase, one small suitcase, one large backpack, and two small backpacks for our journey. We loaded up on food yesterday at the grocery store and Yamuna grilled us some Tandoori chicken to take with us so we are good to go. Next stop: Grampians National Park!

Gas in Melbourne is $1.19/liter. Coming from New Zealand we find this amazing. We fill up the van for less than $60 and we are off. Not long after getting on the highway, though, we pull over. There are signs for a fruit stand: 10 mangoes for $10! It’s busy and we wait in line but we get our mangoes and the farmer convinces us to buy some mandarins too. They are sweet and juicy and we say why not. We decide we can just eat one mango a day until they are gone. Good start to the trip.

As 1:00 rolls around we decide to pull over at a rest stop for lunch. We unload our little folding table and camping chairs right next to the van. These items will be crucial to us on the trip. Yamuna’s Tandoori chicken is delicious and we compliment it with some pita bread and taziki and, of course, a fresh mango. After our rest stop lunch we are back on the road to the Grampians. We roll into Halls Gap just before 3:00. This is the little town in the national park that serves as the park headquarters. At the visitors center they recommend a 10km hike for us that condenses the best of the Grampians into one hike. And if we get back in time we’ll probably see some wild kangaroos enjoying dinner.

The hike is called the Wonderland Loop. It’s hot, but are confident we can be back in 3 hours. We set out on the trail and soon we are in the native bush with large rock cliffs all around us. Coming from New Zealand I am amazed at how similar, yet different, this area is. It’s still a walk through native bush, but it’s so dry. In New Zealand we have rain forests with fern trees and moss growing everywhere. Here it’s dusty and rocky and the plants are all desert plants. Many have thorns and can do some real damage if you’re not paying attention. It’s different, yet just as beautiful, if not more.

I’m also a bit partial to desert climates with dramatic rock formations, having lived in the middle of the Mojave Desert for 2 years (Las Vegas). So I find the beginning of this hike really cool. For once, I’m actually taking more pictures than Nimarta! The rocks flank us on each side as we start to climb. The highlight of this hike is the pinnacles, but we are a good 6 kilometers from that still. We weave through native brush and canyons as we continue the hike. At one point we find ourselves in a beautiful narrow canyon with crazy rocks on either side of us. It reminds me a bit of Red Rocks National Preserve in Las Vegas.

After exiting the canyon we are scrambling on some rocks as we go uphill trying to follow the yellow markers for the trail. It’s pretty hot now and we are scorching in the sun, but we must keep going. It’s just past 5:00 when we reach the top of the mountain. We are at the pinnacles and we have a great view of the valley below and the rocky hills we just climbed. We wait for some other people to leave before reaching the peak, where a chain link viewpoint has been made. I didn’t expect too much from the Grampians, but it is amazing up here.

After about 20 minutes on the mountain we decide we need to head back. The route back is considerably shorter and steeper, so we know it won’t take too long. Unfortunately, we lose sight of the yellow markers and end up lost on the rocks. We know we shouldn’t just keep going. There had to be a marker we missed somewhere. We make the wise decision to climb back up and find the marker we missed. It points us to the right where we scramble over some rocks before finding an obvious trail. The track down is as steep as expected and it’s past 6:30 by the time we reach the town below.

We were told we may have to drive to see some kangaroos, but that won’t be necessary. There are five roos just eating some grass at the campsite at the start of the trail. One is a mother with her joey in her pouch. We pose for some pictures with the roos, but they couldn’t’ care less about us. These kangaroos live in town and they see people all the time. As we drive out of town we notice hundreds of roos in the fields eating dinner (grass). They are literally everywhere.

A terrible dirt road leads us to our campsite. Numerous roos cross the road in front of us. But with how awful the road is I can’t go much faster than 20 kmh anyways. That may just give them a slight nudge. We reach the campsite at around 7:45 and cook up some dinner. Day 1 of our great Australian adventure has been a success! Tomorrow we are off to Adelaide. Time to rest up.

Day 2: Grampians to Adelaide

We awake around 9:00 and hit the road. My favorite dirt road is just as crappy this morning. I can seriously run faster than the van is moving. Oh well. We hit the highway and then we are off. Unlike highways in New Zealand, this road is straight and flat. And we have over 500km to go. Luckily you can drive 100 kmh the entire time and not have to slow down. Except when you see something cool. And that’s what happens when Nimarta is driving and I look out the window to my left. There is a huge pink lake!

Australia has a ton of dry salt lakes. The majority of them are in South Australia though, so we are surprised and happy to see one in Victoria. There is a little rest stop on the side of the road so we pull over and park the van. We change into our boots and head down to the lake. It’s not entirely dry – there is a small pond of sitting water in the middle. Surrounding the water is a distinct pink layer, and surrounding that a bright white layer of salt deposits. The sun reflects off of the white salt and burns our eyes. And then there are the flies.

The Australian desert has a fly problem. These pesky creatures don’t bite like the sand flies in New Zealand but they are just as annoying if not more. They’re larger, and they will land right on your face just to piss you off. And no bug spray repels them. A brisk breeze is the only way to combat them, and that’s not really up to you. We fight the flies as we walk across the dry part of the salt lake. The pink color impresses me. I’ve seen salt flats in the US before but never with this pink tone. It’s pretty crazy looking to me. As I step on the white salt I can see there is a pink layer underneath the white, as my heavy footprints imprint down to that layer in the salt.

After a few pictures and a decent walk on the salt flats we head back to the van. We still have a long way to go. We stop for a quick lunch in a parking lot by a gas station and then hit the road again. We are aiming to get to Adelaide by 5:00. As we cross into South Australia we gain a half hour of time by crossing into the central Australia time zone. I find it odd that it’s a half hour instead of an hour but that’s a whole other discussion. Clouds have come in and it’s not looking so nice out. We decide to forgo the Mount Lofty summit and head straight to our airbnb house.

We are staying in Grange Beach, as we thought this area looked nice. And it definitely is. It’s quite posh and our hosts welcome us to their large home by the train station, about 5 blocks from the beach. It’s been a long day of driving but we need to get some exercise so we run to the beach and down the pier and back. It’s cloudy, but still nice and the weather is warm. The flies here are almost as bad as the desert though. Our hosts have told us this is fly season. Great.

After our workout we shower and head jump in the van to head back down to the beach and walk around a bit and try to find a place to eat. We won’t be eating out too much on this trip so we want a good meal. We catch the sunset through the clouds, a bright orange hue beyond the pier. It’s lovely, but it is starting to rain, so we head to this little Thai place and get some red curry. I love Thai curries, and it hits the spot after a long day on the road. After dinner we head back to the house and chat with our hosts over some wine. Ironically enough, one of their daughters lives in Las Vegas and they go often to visit. I spare the details of my glory days in Vegas but we chat about life in Vegas in general.

The room is so big and comfortable, and the shower so refreshing, that I decide we need to book an airbnb for Alice Springs. I can’t do 12 straight days in the van, that is just too much. Our next night in a real bed will be Saturday night in Coober Pedy, so we need to enjoy this sleep. And that we do.

Day 3: Adelaide to the Clare Valley

Today is a shorter day on the road. After loading up on groceries and cash from the Westpac ATM we head off towards the Clare Valley. This is one of South Australia’s premier wine regions, not quite as popular as the Barossa Valley though, so we shouldn’t have to deal with crowds. It’s only a little more than an hour in the car before we reach the town of Auburn at the beginning of the wine region. There is a biking trail in the area known as the “Riesling Trail.” Apparently this region in particular is famous for its Rieslings, which we did not expect as we thought South Australia was just famous for its reds. You learn something new every day.

Wine tasting will be done, but first we want to try some beer. Australia is new into the whole craft beer scene. We stop at Hop and Vine to taste some Clare Valley Brewing Company beers. They have been around about 2 years now. Seems most Aussie microbrews are between one and two years old. I’ve never had anything other than terrible Australian beer (though Little Creatures isn’t bad) so I am excited to try some microbrews. We opt to taste a porter, an APA, and a red ale, as well as a grape cider. The first sip of the porter is pure disappointment. It’s just not good. Maybe I got spoiled by New Zealand beers, which are some of the best in the world. The APA is even worse. The red is drinkable, but I would never voluntarily purchase it. The saving grace is the cider, which is pretty damn delicious. It is clear to me that Australia still have a long way to go in the craft brewing scene. Maybe they should just stick to wine?

Speaking of wine, that is what we are here for. The brewery also has a winery and we try some of their wines. Much better. It’s raining now and we sprint to the car and drive up to another winery on a hill. Views would be nice up here but it’s really cloudy. Outside enjoying a glass of Riesling we see lightning in the distance, something you almost never see in New Zealand. Next we head to a “famous” winery, Sevenhill Estates. It was founded by Jesuit priests in the 1850s. They made wine to use in church services so they could “drink the blood of Christ,” which they still do to this day. But the winery has also expanded into a very large and successful business. They have some damn good ted wines, but the thing I find interesting is they are all really high in alcohol. Wines that are 15%, 15.2%, 14.5% ABV. Isn’t that crazy? More bang for your buck.

They have a huge property that we set out to explore. We walk the underground cellars where they still age wine. By the time we get outside the sun is out! The sky is mostly blue. The rain clouds have all but disappeared. We take advantage and walk around the vineyards, trying to avoid the flies. We walk into the old church and Nimarta says a prayer for us in typical Punjabi style. While she prayed we also noticed how quiet and peaceful it was in there, we just could hear birds chirping outside. It’s a lovely winery, but we decide not to buy anything and head off (all the wine tastings are free in this region). We have plenty of wine in the van so no need to spend unnecessarily.

We hit one more winery in Claire before checking out the city center. It’s a small town but way more lively and vibrant than any of the other small towns we have passed through so far. We get a few things at the Dollar Store and head off north. We want to get a head start on the drive to Flinders Ranges tonight. It’s 5:30 and I have found a free campsite near the coast about 125 km away, so that will work out great.

We pass through numerous towns on the way to the campsite as we drive through South Australian farmland. Apparently people live in these towns, but they look more like ghost towns to us. They’re really depressing. Everything is run down and it looks like all the businesses have been closed for years. “Who lives here?” Nimarta says. And I agree. It’s really sad.

Our campsite is just a playground that allows freedom camping. There is room for about 4 cars/vans and we are the third ones there. In addition to the playground it also has bathrooms and a barbecue grill with a picnic area. This is excellent because I was planning on cooking my kangaroo steaks tonight and now I don’t have to get out our Coleman grill. I’ve always liked kangaroo meat but these kangaroo steaks are the best meat I’ve ever had. It’s like heaven for carnivores. No beef steak I have ever had in any fancy steakhouse has been this good. It’s something about the kangaroo that makes it so tasty. It doesn’t matter how little you let your cow move it just won’t be as good as kangaroo. Even with how good I claim it is Nimarta refuses to try it. She doesn’t like red meat. I tell her it’s way better than steak but she doesn’t care. One day I will get her to try it!

It’s windy as we make the bed. We try the bed arrangement that keeps the back door open and uses a tarp cover, but it proves too loud in the wind. Around midnight we decide to close it up and go with the usual arrangement. This proves to be a wise decision as it pours overnight. This is probably the last rain we will see until we get to Cairns.

To be continued...


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