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Published: December 5th 2006
Our lovely little Toyota Hiace. Little did we know how attached we would become to this cute gas-guzzler over the following month...
We're in a soulless Melbourne suburb of bargain furniture warehouses and budget supermarket to pick up our home for the next four weeks - a little campervan which, all going to plan, will take us many thousands of miles across the Australian continent. Alex has been planning a detailed itinerary for the past couple of weeks, and all we know is that we would like to get to Uluru and back. Where we stop on the way, and on the way back, is completely up to us.
Hiring a campervan to tour Australia (or, more usually, a tiny part of it given the quasi-astronomical distances involved) is extremely popular with foreigners and Australians alike. According to our guidebook, there are well-equipped campsites everywhere. On top of this, fuel is - to us - relatively cheap, hovering around $1.20 (48p) a litre. Which is just as well, given that campervans guzzle fuel like there's no tomorrow ! After providing the rental company with a few autographs, we're given a guided tour of our new home - or, as Alex puts it, the "bed on wheels". It's really cute - it's essentially a Toyota Hiace van with a slightly higher roof than
Floyd is back
Cooking up our first meal in the campervan. It's amazing what you can do with a frying pan and a bottle of plonk !
usual. The back of the van has two rows of seats along the sides which can be converted, using a couple of wooden boards, into a bed to comfortably sleep two. Between the "bedroom" (ha !) and the driver and passenger seats is a kitchen (of sorts) with a little fridge, a gas stove, sink, and a small work surface about the size of an A4 sheet of paper ! All the electrics (fridge, pump for the water) are supplied by a large battery which you can recharge at campsites using a cable. Everything you need ! I'm immediately slightly apprehensive as to how comfortable it's going to be to eat, sleep and live in this little 5-metre-long rolling capsule for nearly a month...
I've never driven anything larger than a small town car - I'm more than a little nervous driving away from the rental offices and onto the streets of Melbourne. Fortunately the campervan proves to be extremely easy to drive and in no time we're on the motorway heading west away from Melbourne towards Geelong.
The first part of our journey is going to take us along what is reputed to be one of the
Looking out to sea
Alex on Roadknight Beach, near Torquay on the coast West of Melbourne and only an hour's drive away from the city.
world's very best drives - the Great Ocean Road. As its name cleverly implies, the road hugs the western Victorian coastline between Torquay, just south of Geelong and about 100km from Melbourne, all the way to the border with Victoria's neighbour, South Australia.
After a brief pause in Geelong to look for a place to eat (fruitless - the one nice restaurant our book recommends has closed down...) we head towards the coast of Port Lonsdale, where we enjoy our very first taste of a true Aussie institution - the pie. The honourable and laudable pie. Beef, steak and mushroom, chicken, you name it. If you can eat it, the Aussies can make it into a pie. And very tasty they are too ! Alex is very excited by something she's read in the guidebook. A favourite "delicacy" in South Australia (I'm not convinced this is quite the mot juste
) is the pie floater
, consisting of a pie floating in a bowl of pea soup. I must admit I would like to try one of these, if only to see if it really does look as disgusting as it sounds. Apparently it's very popular at football matches. Why am
Low tide at Roadknight Beach
Bizarrely eroded rocks and deep, crystal-clear clear rockpools to hop around. The air is fresh and clean - wholly invigorating.
I not surprised...
We join the Ocean Road at Torquay towards our first overnight stop in Lorne. Barely a few kilometres onto the road and - the views ! As the road twists and turns, often mere feet from the ocean, it's picture postcard view after picture postcard view. Steep cliffs to your right, sapphire ocean to your right. The Great Ocean Road is reputedly one of the more accident-prone stretches of road in Australia. I can well believe it. The views of the sea are so astonishingly beautiful that it takes quite an effort to keep one's eyes on the road. Steep gradients and frequent hairpin bend allow to make the very detailed acquaintance of the gearbox. Luckily the authorities have taken people like me into consideration and there are regular turn-outs for me to pull into and let the locals (who aren't driving tanks) past.
The new vehicle and the crazy roads quickly take their toll - by the time we get to Lorne, a pretty seaside town, I am completely exhausted ! Our campsite is set by a small river not far from the beach - a block in the middle of the site provides,
An appropriate road sign by the sea near Torquay.
cooking, laundry and washing facilities. We pick our spot (a "powered site"), plug the van in and set to cooking our first dinner - we'd stopped in Bi-Lo (Australia's answer to Tesco) on the way to fill up our fridge and cupboards. Alex popped across the road to fetch a bottle of wine (we start as we mean to go on) for us to toast a successful start to our adventure.
The next day we are up nice and early, woken by the ducks quacking around the van (which we've baptised Smoggie, loosely based on the number plate...) looking for leftovers of our dinner. No such luck duckies - it was still freezing last night so we had dinner inside the camper ! After breakfast we pack up our things ("preparing for take-off" as I call it) and set off. The steep hills above Lorne are a great place to go walking, and a particularly popular stop is the Erskine Falls, a waterfall on the River Erskine which we camped by lower down towards the ocean. To get to the falls you have to drive up a ridiculous gradient - complete with (the joy) numerous STOP signs. I love
Gorgeous sun, sea and sky framed by the intricately carved rocks on Roadknight Beach.
hill starts, naturally, but it was a bit silly...From the small parking area some steps lead down to the falls. It was beautiful - the thundering of the water gave way to gentle babbling as the river tumbled gently over polished boulders, through a forest of giant ferns, towards the sea. It was possible to follow the Erskine River all the way down to its mouth, but it was an eight-hour walk which we weren't quite ready for yet ! We did follow the river for an hour or so, losing all the over visitors in the process, to another set of falls, Straw Falls, where a wide sheet of water cascaded over a smooth stone fall. The city was already well and truly behind us.
Not far from the Falls in the hills overlooking the coast at Lorne was a lookout providing extraordinary views of the coastline and the winding Ocean Road. In keeping with its rather crazy reputation, the weather was hot and sunny, and the blues of the sky and ocean were breathtaking. As we were walking from the lookout back to Smoggie, I heard a faint rustle in the bush just by the path. We
The sea hurls itself against the rocks, producing great plumes of spray reaching metres into the air. Nothing compared to what awaits us along the coast.
peered through the undergrowth to find an echidna busy snaffling through the leaf litter looking for ants, its favourite food. Our first wild Australian animal ! It was extremely cute with its wobbly gait and long snout. We had a mental list of the animals we might spot here. Echidna - check.
After a delicious lunch of fish and chips (beer-battered grenadier and scallops - yum !) at the Salty Dog in Lorne, which we enjoyed sitting on the beach despite the flies (you wouldn't believe the flies in Australia - I'd have had a field day if the pesky security staff at Kuala Lumpur Airport hadn't taken my electric fly swatter...grr), we drove on towards Cape Otway. The views didn't let up for even a minute - "Oooooh" and "Aaaaah" all the way...As we were driving over a small creek, Sausage Gully (eh ?), Alex spotted something up in the eucalypt trees by the side of the road. We pulled over in a turn-out and got out to have a look. There, sitting on a branch a couple of metres up, overhanging the road, was a koala, who was evidently extremely interested in our presence. It stared unwaveringly
The beautiful, verdant Erskine Falls in the hills above the seaside town of Lorne.
at us and as we passed under it to get a better look, it also turned its head to keep its eye on us. Granted, koalas aren't exactly rare but it's hard to express how amazed we were to see one just sitting there right above our heads. It was extremely strange. We finally managed to tear ourselves away from it but as we drove on you could pick dozens of them in the gum trees by the side of the road. Everywhere ! Sometimes oven two or three to a tree. Koala - check.
Our campsite for the second night was on Cape Otway itself, a few kilometres off the main road down an unsurfaced road. Of the countless thousands of kilometres of road in Australia, a good proportion are unsurfaced, but despite this we're not allowed to drive on them in the campervan. The only exception is roads leading to campsites. so we're in the clear. But even the five kilometres or so to the park were enough to shake our teeth out of their sockets. With all the knives, forks and the like jangling away in the back of the van, it was like travelling with
After the falls, the Erskine River tumbles towards the sea. Giant, prehistoric-looking ferns line the banks. Silence except for birdsong and the babbling of the water.
a resident brass band. Give me tarmac any day ! The campsite was simple, set in a large forest of manna gums lavishly garnished with koalas. Whole herds of them ! What the collective word for koalas, I wonder...perhaps a zonk
would be appropriate. Indeed, these bizarre creatures feast on nothing but the highly toxic leaves of a few (of the many) species of eucalypt. The leaves are so noxious that the koala has to expend a large proportion of the energy it derives from the leaves (and it ain't much !) on detoxifying the food. Which makes the poor koala's existence a rather odd one. A side effect of such a poisonous diet is that koalas are permanently drugged out of their brains, which explains why they don't move very much, sleep for much of the day and like sitting on busy main roads...
As Alex and I wandered amongst the gums, we heard a loud and rather scary grunting noise - I really did sound like a demented boar ready to charge. We weren't aware of any psychotic wild man-eating pigs inhabiting southern Australia (or any part of Australia come to think of it...) but still we
Our first glimpse of a native Australian animal. This is an echidna burrowing around for ants in the eucalypt forest above Lorne. The echidna is one of Australia's two monotremes (egg-laying mammals) - along with the platypus.
hurried back to the safety of our van. It turned out, of course, to be those koalas - male one to be exact - trying to woo the females. Weird creatures indeed...
The following morning we left Cape Otway and stopped a little further down the Ocean Road at Melba Gully. The coast in this part of Victoria is dotted with several deep clefts or gullies, which harbour rare and unusual vegetation unlike anything anywhere else in the region. A few miles away near Lorne we had been wandering through dry, eucalypt forest, scarred by frequent fire, but here in Melba Gully giant tree ferns and myrtle beeches dominated the landscape. It was quiet, cool and damp, and gave a strong impression of what this part of world might have looked like aeons ago. We were extremely impressed by how well sites of interest such as these gullies were managed by the Victorian National Parks service. Excellent walking paths and numerous informative signs made for a fascinating walk among the towering trees.
The coastline west of here is known as the Shipwreck Coast. Over the past two hundred years, since colonies - penal and otherwise - were established
First day on the road
At Teddy's Lookout, overlooking the dazzling blue of the Southern Ocean. The Great Ocean Road snakes into the distance behind us.
here, treacherous seas and hidden reefs have claimed dozens of ships and hundreds of lives. The next couple of days along the Great Ocean Road promise some even more wondrous views...
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