The Great Ocean Road


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February 10th 2014
Published: February 14th 2014
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Great Ocean Road


December 20, 2013. The summer solstice is just a day away. This is weird for me since I'm used to that date being June 21, not December 21st. I'm not complaining though. I spent June 21 in the US so this is my second summer in a row. Last night it was light till about 9:35 in Wellington. We are pretty far south. I'm going to miss the longest day of the year here though. I'll be spending it in Melbourne. I've been to Melbourne before. Maybe one day I'll write about my first time there. It was an odd experience, but I've decided to give it another shot. I'll be meeting my friend Steve from Las Vegas there. He is coming to the southern hemisphere for three weeks in Australia and New Zealand. He'll be spending most of his time in the Gold Coast though, somewhere I've spent over a week before, so I'll be flying to Malaysia to meet up with Nimarta and a friend from grad school while he's there. I've got two weeks off from work for the holiday break and I plan to make the best of this mandatory leave.

It's 4 AM when Super Shuttle picks me up in front of a cafe near my apartment. That means it 1 AM in Melbourne. Steve just got there a few hours ago. My flight isn't till 6:45. I didn't want to be picked up this early but Super Shuttle doesn't really give you a choice. Checking in at Wellington International Airport takes like 3 minutes, and this morning is no different. I've never been to the international terminal before, so this is at least new. It's pretty fancy. I lay down on the couches to try to nap, unsuccessfully. Wellington is one of those airports that flies to one country and gets to call itself an international airport. Hopefully you've figured out by now that that country is Australia (though apparently they are starting a seasonal nonstop to Fiji - hope that happens). You can fly to Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne. At least that opens up options for international travel without having to stop in Auckland.

I can usually sleep on planes but for some reason today I am wide awake. At least Air New Zealand lets you watch free TV shows on flights to Australia. I watch Brain Games and a random Elton John concert and three and a half hours later I'm in Melbourne. Local time: 8:15 AM. Gonna be a long day! When you arrive in Melbourne at 8:15 you arrive at the same time as every other flight ever. The flights from the US get in at this time. Every flight from Asia gets in at this time. You're going to wait a while in the customs line, or queue, as they call it. After an hour in the customs line I'm finally free of the Melbourne Airport. I hope on the bus to the city and I'm at my hotel by 10:30, still a full day ahead of me. A half hour later Steve meets me at the hotel. Time to check in and start the day.

We decide that since the weather looks crappy this weekend we'll check out the beach today. We head to St. Kilda beach and wander around for a while. We finally settle on a place for lunch and a beer. I have warned Steve about the prices of things in Australia but I think he's still not ready for his first $11 beer. Sorry, mate, that's just the way it is. As we sit the wind picks up, and up, and eventually we can barely sit without sand blowing in our eyes. Everyone has left the beach except the kite surfers, who are loving this intense wind. Well there goes our beach plan. We head back downtown and head up to the top of the Eureka Skydeck tower (http://www.eurekaskydeck.com.au/), the tallest observation tower in the southern hemisphere (though the tallest structure is actually the Sky Tower in Auckland). At 92 stories it gives you a great view of the city and surrounding areas. Melbourne is a huge city, and you get an appreciation for that up here.

Back on solid ground, we decide to head back to the hotel and get ready to go out. We are meeting some friends of a friend in St. Kilda. We Google the place and catch the tram to meet up with them. This place is sort of off the beaten path, but all the girls are dressed really nicely, like they're going to prom or something. We go to show our ID's and hear this: "Sorry mates, you're just a little too casual for us tonight." Casual? I've got dress shoes, jeans, and a collared shirt on. Steve has jeans and a sweater. "No short sleeve shirts" he tells me. "That guy just walked in with shorts and a white T-shirt" I tell the bouncer. "We're working on that" he tells me, not even coming up with an excuse. "No suede shoes," he explains is the reason Steve can't come in. "That guy has flip flops on" I say. Whatever the reason, these guys don't want us in their bar. Maybe they hate Americans, maybe the girls we are with are trying to get rid of us. Whatever the reason is, it's not what we're wearing. Instead of backing us up, the friend of a friend just looks the other way and tells us sorry. Some friend of a friend. Steve and I head down the street to another bar, but it is boring and we head back to the hotel. Not our night in Melbourne, I suppose.

Saturday is dreary, much like my first time in Melbourne three years ago. We head down to the docklands and catch a ride on a pirate ship for a while. We also make a stop at Costco, since Steve is amazed Costco is in Australia. After biking back to the hotel on Melbourne bike share, we head down to Southbank for dinner and some drinks. It's a nice area on the river with bars and restaurants overlooking downtown. After dinner we walk back downtown to see what looks good for tonight. Everyone seems to be walking around but no one is actually going anywhere. We're not passing any bars, just a few strip clubs. Where is everyone going? Hungry Jack's is packed (it's basically Burger King). We finally find a place to check out and are greeted by something we've heard before: "sorry mates, you're a bit too casual for us." Seriously? This is Australia, where 80% of the guys wear tank tops constantly. And we're too casual? We take that as a sign Melbourne is not for us and head back to the hotel. Tomorrow is the main reason we are here anyways. We are going to drive the Great Ocean Road!

It's raining when we wake up, of course. I grab my umbrella and we walk over to the downtown Avis office. I get a sweet Toyota Corolla hatchback, the common car you get when you rent down here, and we are on our way. Today's plan is to drive the Great Ocean Road to Port Campbell National Park, not too far from where some famous geological features called the Twelve Apostles reside (http://parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/twelve-apostles-marine-national-park). The Great Ocean Road is known to be one of the most scenic drives in the world, up there with the Pacific Coast Highway in California. We shall see.

Driving away from Melbourne I can't help but notice how industrial the city is. We are not passing through suburbs and shopping malls. We are passing chemical factories and steel mills. Obviously there are suburbs somewhere, but Highway 1 west takes you through industrial Australia. The grey sky doesn't add to the limited beauty of industrial land. Eventually we are out of the greater Melbourne area and come into the town of Geelong, where we exit the highway in favor the B100, The Great Ocean Road. By now the rain has stopped and it looks like it might even clear up soon. Not long after passing Geelong we get our first view of the ocean from the little town of Anglesea. It's a far cry from Melbourne, small town Australia. It's peaceful out here. No one to tell us we're a bit too casual for them here.

The first stints on The Road do remind me of the Pacific Coast Highway. The mountains on the shore are not as tall, but they are steep and green. The road winds along through the mountains as the waves crash on the rocky shore. Definitely don't want to go swimming down there. But the views are gorgeous and change with every turn. After a while of driving on the winding road we reach the town of Lorne, where we decide to stop and get brunch. There are a few little eateries and we pick one and order. I get the pancakes, which come topped with ice cream. Steve assumes the topping is butter. "That's a hell of a lot of butter", he says to me. I stick my fork into it to confirm it's ice cream. Pancakes and ice cream is common down here, something you will never see in the States. It's pretty damn delicious.

After brunch in Lorne we have a long stretch on the coast before turning inland through Great Otway National Park. Australia is very generous with their national park declarations. Many of them are nothing but forests with no sights, much like the national forests in the US. But I'd say even our national forests are more interesting than most Australian national parks. Sorry Aussies.... Great Otway is a rain forest, and it's nice to drive through, but after a while we start longing for the coast again. We are behind some slow buses and the road is too curvy to pass. We're greeted with a brief view of the coast after Great Otway but the road quickly turns back inland. Looking at the map, we won't see the coast again until we're almost at the Twelve Apostles. But that's not too far in the future.

It's past 2:00 by the time we turn off the road into the Twelve Apostles Visitors Center. The weather seems to be getting worse so it's a good thing we didn't get here any later. There's not much to see at the visitor's center so we follow the crowds of Japanese tourists down the path to the coast. There are a few viewpoints for the Apostles and we hit the first one. I've seen pictures of these things before. What are they? you ask. They are giant pillars of rock that stick up from the ocean, formed by non-uniform erosion over millions of years. There are actually only 7 pillars. There were originally 8 but one collapsed into the ocean 10 years ago. Why is it called the "Twelve Apostles" when there were only eight? Your guess is as good as mine.

Right below the viewpoint the cliff drops down hundreds of feet to the water. The Apostles stick up from the ground like they were sculpted by Michelangelo. It doesn't really make any sense why there are just these seven pillars here and no others the whole length of the drive. But it's amazing. I snap some pictures and we move on to the next viewpoint, which offers a similar view but from a slightly different angle. The wind is really starting to pick up now and the clouds are getting heavier. We hit the viewpoint for the other side, where one lonely apostle lives, and by the time we are back to the first viewpoint the fog has set in. The apostles are barely visible now. Looks like we just barely made it!

The wind has really picked up now and we decide to not loiter around anymore. We weave through the Japanese tourists back to the car. We have one more thing we want to see here, the Lord Ard Gorge. It's a small inlet in the ocean that washes up to a sandy beach between two jagged rock cliffs. We hike down to the beach and are immersed in the gorge. It's a new perspective from down here, looking up the cliffs instead of down. We hike across some rocks into a little cave and watch the tide come in. It's not foggy down here so we are in no rush to leave. After this is back to Melbourne. Better enjoy the scenery while we can.

After hiking out of the gorge we are back in the car on the road. We are taking a different, more direct route back, but this takes us on some back country roads as we head back to Highway 1 (fun fact: Australian Highway 1 is the longest continuous road in the world - at 9000 miles it wraps around the entire continent in a giant loop). There is absolutely nobody on the country roads and they are barely wide enough for two cars. Every once in a while we pass a car but for the most part we are on our own. I use this time to test how fast this sweet Corolla can go. Unfortunately the road is not too smooth so I can't go too fast. It was fun anyways. Back on the highway we are rolling back to Melbourne at 110 kmh.

I stop in Geelong to get some gas and Steve decides that he's ready to try driving on the left side of the road. I drove for the first time on the left in downtown London earlier in the year before moving to New Zealand. This seems like a much better - and safer - place to try it out. It's weird at first, but he gets the hang of it pretty quickly. It's really not that hard. The biggest obstacle is trying to put on the turn signal without turning on the windshield wipers since they are on opposite sides of the steering wheel. This throws him off a couple of times but he guides us safely to our hotel in Melbourne.

Back in town, my last order of business in Australia is to try one of the Greek restaurants in the Greek prescient of Melbourne. Melbourne is home to the biggest Greek population in the southern hemisphere. There's even a little Greek Town, kind of like China Town but way smaller. We head down there and find about 5 Greek restaurants. This is awesome to me, since I live in Wellington, where there are exactly zero Greek restaurants. It's been a while since I've had good Greek food other than my own so I am looking forward to this dinner.

People eat early in Australia so walking the streets of the Greek prescient at 8:45 we don't see too many people in the restaurants. We stop to look at the menus outside and the owner of Dion (http://www.dionrestaurant.com.au/) sees us. He comes out and invites us in to his restaurant. He is very Greek looking. The menu looks good so we decide to give it a shot. Ignatios, the owner, shows us to our table. We order a couple of Mythos' and look over the menu (Greek beer). We're the only customers at this time so we get special attention from Ignatios. I opt for a meatball dish and Steve gets the lamb special. We get some grape leaves to start and Ignatios gives us some complimentary tazaki and pita bread. The food is excellent and we wipe our plates clean. We're pretty full but baklava is needed. The nice gooey desert finishes off our meal. We thank Ignastio for the service and food and promise to write a review of Trip Adviser (note to self: write a review on Trip Adviser).

We cut through Chinatown on the way back to the hotel. It's actually quite a large neighborhood, encompassing many blocks of downtown Melbourne. I'm always amazed by Chinatowns since they appear to be just Chinese restaurants. There's really nothing else that makes up Chinatown. Every address is a restaurant or some place you can get food. I assume the local Chinese population solely runs restaurants for tourists. That's a fair assumption, right?

There's really nothing us for us to do in Melbourne at this point, except maybe get told we're too casual for things again, so we head back to the hotel. I have to get up relatively early tomorrow for my flight to Malaysia. Steve still has another full day here before flying to Gold Coast, so we bid farewell in the morning. We'll meet up in a week when I get to the Gold Coast. Until then I'm in Asia for the next week. This will be my first time on the Asian continent so I'm pretty excited. Malaysia here I come!

See "Christmas with Orangutans" for the continuation of this story.

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