The Flinders, Adelaide and the Southern Ocean & Great Ocean Roads

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November 14th 2018
Published: November 14th 2018
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17 October 2018 - 9 November 2018

After so many days of long drives we decided to stop in Hawker, to the north east of Port Augusta, and on the edge of the Flinders Ranges so that we could do a short tour into the Flinders. It is an area that is arid bush with ranges of relatively small mountains of varying shape and composition. The older hills are worn down to rounded mounds whereas younger mountains (in geological terms) are more precipitous with jagged cliffs. It is a popular 'upmarket' tourist destination offering luxurious hideaway spa retreats on traditional stations, plenty of five star 4x4 safaris including personalised flights across particular sights and of course off road 4x4 adventures. Because it is relatively close to centres of population including Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney there is a large market. So we decided we should visit but in a more down to earth manner, we drove up to Blinman, an old copper mine town, and back in a day.

The scenery was varied and the driving easy compared with the Nullarbor. Blinman provides a petrol station, visitor centre to the old mine and a general store. We ignored the mine and popped into the store where we bought a chocolate brownie each for elevenses. It was honestly the best brownie in the whole world! I wanted to race back and buy up all their remaining stock, (three brownies) but Jim would not let me.

Then we stopped at Wilpena Pound on the return drive. It is a fascinating place consisting of a vast saucer shaped dip in the ground with lots of wildlife but to make a walk worthwhile it needs a whole day. As we left an emu raced across the road in front of Jim then a little further on we saw a kangaroo hop right up to the edge of the road. Jim slowed down to a stop as he could not be sure which way the animal would move. So for a moment it was stalemate with the Roo right beside us. I signalled to it to cross, then felt very silly realising what I had done. But it did get the message and eventually bounded across the road in front of us.

The next day we left the outback behind and drove through the wine producing region of the Clare Valley and on to Adelaide. We chose our camp site well. As far as facilities went it was adequate, nothing more, but it was perfectly positioned, fifteen minutes walk to the bus stop for the free town circular bus, and about half an hour's walk into the centre where the museums, art gallery and state buildings are to be found. Both walks were across the Botanic park which was a pleasure in itself.

The Museum is fascinating with excellent displays of aboriginal life, artefacts and videos of people passing on stories and their history as well as practical skills. Another gallery is the largest display of Pacific Islands culture in Australia and there is even an Antarctica exhibition with information about Douglas Mawson's expeditions and his efforts to persuade governments to reach agreements to protect the continent in the early 20th Century. As I had not heard of Mawson previously I found that especially interesting.

The Art Gallery was a more challenging experience. They have a policy of mixing styles and periods of work together in a way that was new to me and made me have to think more than usual. Displays include some superb pieces including Rodin's bust of John the Baptist, others that appealed to me less, but all of them were so unobtrusively labelled that it was sometimes necessary to wander around a room two or three times before being able to track down a label and identify which piece was which. That quickly became irritating.

In the shopping area there are a number of very elegant arcades, as well as numerous specialist chocolate shops, restaurants and bars. It really appealed to us as a city to live in as the centre is small with some interesting architecture and surrounded on all four sides by lovely parks and of course the Torrens River runs through the centre itself providing riverbank walks. Just popping through the park to the bus stop we saw Rainbow Lorikeets, Sulphur Crested parrots, Eastern Rosellas. Ibis, and all the usual honey eaters and wrens.

However, when we moved on from Adelaide, initially west to view the nearby beach townships, and then south, we were surprised at how widespread the conurbation is. The city centre is small but the surrounding towns and suburbs all run together so it was a few hours before we felt that we had escaped the populated area.

In fact it was not until we reached the south coast and turned eastwards into Goolwa, a delightful small town on the edge of Lake Alexandrina, that we felt relaxed and free of traffic. Alexandrina and adjacent Lake Albert together form a huge fresh water area kept separate from the sea by barrages and a very long peninsula which is really only a huge and well established sandbar. The Murray river flows into the sea here but strangely for such a long and important river which feeds and waters a huge population, the mouth of the river is remarkably insignificant. This is in part because so much of it is diverted and used on its journey from the Great Dividing Range and because the barrages have been put in place to keep the salt water out of the lakes. There are seals lazing about on the barrages as well as plenty of birds.

So then we carried on wandering eastwards along the coast, stopping at various reserves, country parks and small towns. There are plenty of reserves to walk around, many of them community initiatives. The walks have been stunning, around lakes, along beaches and, perhaps some of the best, along the Limestone coast, where there is a plateau of limestone which stretches into the sea forming platforms, pavements craggy coves, stacks and arches. In one place the 'holes' in the limestone form crystal clear pools full of vivid, emerald green, tropical looking vegetation. Some of these pools stretched as far as the beach contrasting sharply with the white sand and brilliant azure sea. I saw a two metre long snake swimming in one of these pools.

The wild flowers have accompanied us the whole trip, apart from the Nullarbor. We are still in spring so day time temperatures are fine but at night it has been cold and even during the day if the wind is from the south it can be freezing but very hot in a sheltered spot. I suppose not unlike Lanzarote but much more extreme!

There are too many lovely places to list them all but two that stand out are the Pangarinda Botanic Garden, a community initiative supported by the local council and Robe, a pretty small town with a jetty, lakes and bird hides. Pangarinda is thirty hectares of Crown Land that has been replanted with arid and dry zone plants. Most of the work has been done by volunteers and local school children. We used the map to locate it, a simple metal gate with the Pangarinda sign (which means sunset in the local Ngarrindjeri dialect) along an isolated country road. It really felt like a secret garden as through the gate is a beautiful selection of native plants suited to growing with little rain. No-one else was there. We stayed three hours, walked around, sat under the canopy shelter to eat lunch, watched the birds including a pair of Rainbow Bee-eaters, and examined the plants which were better signed than the plants in Adelaide Botanical Garden. It is really something for the community to be proud of, an amazing achievement which they hope to improve even further.

It was in Robe that a lady in the information centre told us to go to a specific bird hide where we might spot Latham's Snipe. They are sometimes called Japanese Snipe as they breed in Japan then fly here. We went to the hide and saw the more common water birds such as ducks, heron, masked lapwings etc but no snipe. Then after fifteen minutes or so our eyes adjusted to the environment and suddenly we saw them, tucked away in the samphire plants to protect themselves from the wind. There were hundreds. It was fantastic.

I am afraid this is more of a bird blog than usual as from Robe we continued east to Portland. This was the western extent of our trip a few years ago so from here we are covering old ground along the Great Ocean Road. The reason we made the effort to visit Portland previously was to see the only mainland gannet colony in Australia but when we approached it, after much difficulty, we needed to cross a sign for a live firing range with the red flag flying to get any closer so we gave up. How things change. The tourist industry has woken up to the fact that this might interest people so now the road out has been sealed, there is a sign to the colony and when we went to the Information Centre we were told that on Thursday it is possible to go out there with a guide for a free visit. As it was only Tuesday we hesitated about staying two days in order to visit the gannets but when the lady called the guide to book it he said as we were there he would come straight away. That is what he did and ten minutes later we were following his ute out to the headland.

He is a real birder so gave lots of information such as how the colony had increased in size threefold in ten years. The area around the headland is a huge aluminium smelting complex owned/managed by Alcan. So big that the plant consumes 10% of Victoria's electricity production. When they realised that the gannets had 'overspilled' from a rocky outcrop just off the coast on to the headland they decided to help by fencing the area off to keep predators at bay which in turn enabled the mainland colony to thrive. It is a way of demonstrating their concern for the environment. Another way is that they keep some cattle on the headland and each year kill one so that they can analyse it to ensure that nothing toxic is entering the food chain from the smelting plant.

Our guide took us right though the fence up to the birds so it was an amazing experience. We were very lucky and really appreciated his time and attention. Then he took us to another two birding sites in the town. We only managed to escape as we had to go and buy food before the shops closed.

Port Fairy was the next stop, promising a spectacular evening show when the mutton birds (shearwaters) return home at dusk. Separated from the mainland by a river channel and joined by a causeway is a sandy island where thousands of Shearwaters return from Alaska and the Aleutian Islands to breed here each year. They are wonderfully predictable.

Someone has recorded all their movements over twenty plus years and they arrive within a three day window and leave just as punctually. When they first arrive they rebuild and repair their nests then about the 10th November they fly back out to sea for two weeks that is labelled a honeymoon. When they return the eggs are laid. We went to watch them fly in from the sea on two consecutive two nights and even that experience reflects the craziness of the climate here.

The first night it was so cold we were not sure if we could make the two kilometre walk each way to the lookout. But we wrapped up as we had in Alaska, lined trousers, fleeces, jackets, hats and scarves and braved the biting wind. We met two American guys at the lookout and they were equally well wrapped up so we could only see their eyes. It was fascinating to see the birds return in their thousands just as darkness fell. Unfortunately it was too dark to photograph but watching them through binoculars it was an amazing sight as they covered the sky above the island. The next day the wind changed direction and it was hot and humid but with little sun. We returned that night to the lookout in just short sleeved T shirts and were very grateful that the very gentle sea breeze came to cool us down as we waited once again for the birds to fly home and watched lightning flashing from storms out at sea. An unbelievable contrast with the previous night.

The road took us next to Warrnambool where we tried to book into a site and were surprised to be turned away as they were full. This was a Friday. We knew that the Melbourne Cup horse race was due to take place the following Tuesday. What we did not know was that the day of The Cup is a state holiday in Victoria, so many people take the Monday off work to make a very long weekend break. Then it appeared to us that most of the population head down to the Great Ocean Road. We were to be inundated but even then were not prepared for the scale of the invasion.

That morning we stopped early to view a couple of landmarks at the start of the Great Ocean Road, the Arch and London Bridge. As usual on our stops there were just a handful of people at both. Then we had lunch and called in to the Information Centre in Port Campbell. The lady there gave us plenty of information before asking if we were going to visit the Twelve Apostles. When we said yes, she advised that we try to go early the next day as it would not be such a good experience that afternoon as there would be lots of people there. Her message did not really sink in until we approached the car parks for the Apostles and a couple of other view points. The traffic was horrendous, the car parks were jammed and marshals in high visibility jackets were trying to manage the chaos and prevent people turning off the highway. This was the Great ocean Road, usually more or less empty! We kept on driving. The contrast with the usual quiet tranquility of these places stunned us. Not only was it impossible to visit anything, all the accommodation was fully booked and the prices in many cases, even on campsites, were double the normal rates.

Our survival strategy started with driving a little way inland off the Great Ocean Road to a free rest area where we stayed the night. Such a site obviously does not fit the holiday image so is bypassed as people rush to the coast. Then the next morning we were up and on the road very early to visit the Twelve Apostles, Loch Ard Gorge and other
This was the young koala that mistook me for his motherThis was the young koala that mistook me for his motherThis was the young koala that mistook me for his mother

Poor thing was very wet and bedragggled
sights before the crowds breakfasted and we had a wonderful time. However that night we could not avoid paying double to stay on a very average site, in fact so poor that most of our free sites have had better facilities!

I mentioned that we drove the Great Ocean Road a few years ago but compared with this trip we saw very little apart from the Apostles and London Bridge. Trying to work out why we missed so much we came to the conclusion that the weather had been so cold we moved along the coast very quickly but I think a bigger factor was that there were fewer sealed roads so we could not make detours. The road network has been improved which allows us to see more as well as providing quick access to people from Melbourne, now only 90 minutes away by car. By the Tuesday calm and normal pricing were restored thankfully.

One detour was down to Cape Otway which is a forested area full of koalas. Jim and I went for a walk along a little trail by the lighthouse and on the way back a young koala ambled onto the path. Because it had been raining he was very wet and looked miserable. I took a photograph quickly, then as he sat down I started a video. After a couple of minutes he started to move again and came straight towards me so I had to back way quickly. He looked just like a toddler waddling towards it's mother with arms up wanting to be picked up. Unfortunately I had to disappoint him.

The scenery along the Limestone Coast and the Great Ocean Road is truly stunning with cliffs, the arches and stacks in the sea, the bird and wildlife. Loch Ard Gorge is one of my favourite places scenically despite being the sight of a tragedy when a ship called Loch Ard sank in a storm just off the treacherous coast. There were 54 passengers plus crew but only two people survived. They were swept into the gorge which gave them some protection. The day we visited the weather was good but the sea was very powerful. It must have been truly terrifying in the storm.

We coasted along by the Southern Ocean stopping off at pristine small towns and I
Kennet River, full of birds and koalasKennet River, full of birds and koalasKennet River, full of birds and koalas

Usually saw between 2-6 koalas on each stroll
think that is why Melbourne shocked us when we finally arrived. It has all the problems of a large city, homeless people on the streets, drug problems clearly evident from the needles deposited in public places and graffiti everywhere. On the plus side it has a good transport system with free trams in the central CBD rectangle and a big cafe culture. Apart from this for me it does not appear to have the other benefits of a large city. Perhaps it is the weather? Somehow it does not seem as cared for as the other cities we have visited in Oz, the buildings seem darker and some of the localities such as Brunswick and Collingwood decidedly sleazy.

We enjoyed wandering through the park areas especially Fitzroy Park, where surprisingly, you can visit Cook's House. This house was built in Yorkshire in 1756 and removed brick by brick and rebuilt in Melbourne in 1934. There has been controversy around it right from the start and watching the explanatory video it does give an elaborate and apologetic explanation of why it is here representing an alien culture. What surprised and disappointed us was that in fact James Cook never lived in it. It was built by James Cook senior when his son was 25 and had left to sail away with the Navy. It became the family home but only visited a few times by the explorer. However it does provide a point of interest in the park and the ivy growing up the wall came from England as cuttings at the same time as the house.

This morning we fly to Hobart for the start of our journey around Tasmania and we are looking forward to escaping city life and seeing more of the coastal scenery that is so superb here. More about that in the next blog.

Ps We tried to post this a number of times without success. Wifi has been erratic throughout our journey. Now I am trying to send from Tasmania, fingers crossed!

Additional photos below
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Cook's House, originally built in 1755Cook's House, originally built in 1755
Cook's House, originally built in 1755

Moved to Melbourne brick by brick in 1934

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