For those of you following our progress, our next major destination after Tasmania was the City of Adelaide where we would spend four days. To get there we rented a Toyota Rav 4, from the Melbourne Airport and prepared to drive more than 1,200 kilometers, taking in what is said to be Australia’s most spectacular stretch of coast, The Great Ocean Road.
In all, we drove for five days, making frequent stops to view the scenery and staying in a succession of small motels where we could park in front of our door and easily unload and load our luggage.
Our route followed the GOR through the towns or Torquay, Lorne, Apollo Bay, and Port Campbell, each town special in its own way. The beaches of Torquay are renowned for their nearly perfect surfing conditions. Lorne has been a fashionable retreat since the 1860s. Apollo Bay has some of the coast’s most dramatic scenery, while Port Campbell has the Twelve Apostles, the Road’s greatest attraction.
As we drove from Melbourne to Torquay we were aware that the traffic moving in the opposite direction was becoming more and more intense. At one point it was bumper-to-bumper for several kilometers, and we were relieved we weren’t in it. It finally dawned on us that the day, a Monday, was the end of a three-day bank holiday, and that the cars were carrying people from the beaches back to Melbourne.
We arrived at Torquay to find the town chockablock with people, families mostly, who were spread across the lawns and beach, and jamming the restaurants along the shore road. We felt no reason to stop there except hunger. The restaurant where we finally found a table served us a mediocre meal. We ate quickly and fled the town.
Lorne, where we stopped for the night, was also a bit disappointing, It has a lovely beach and some pretty scenery, but the hotel we chose on the advice of more than one person put us in a small, unattractive room. It promised a sea-view from its tiny balcony, but what we could see of the sea through the trees and the traffic on the road below was minuscule.
Not wanting to give the Lorne Hotel our dinner business, we walked along the main street and finally settled on a noisy eatery called Chopstix that served us Indonesian curry at a sidewalk table.
We said goodbye to Lorne the next morning but not before taking the advice of a friendly bakery man and driving a few kilometers inland to look at Erskine Falls. Viewed from the bottom of a gorge reached by descending many flights of steps, the falls were a pretty sight. They would have been much more so had there been more water to fall. Like much of southern Australia, the coastal lands are suffering from drought.
As we drove out of Lorne, we passed the impressive Grand Pacific Hotel, the one where we should have stayed.
Beyond Lorne we made many stops to view the sights of one of prettiest seacoasts we had ever seen. The closest comparison we can make is to California along the Pacific Coast Highway. Imagine the beaches south of LA interspersed with the miles of rocky beauty south of Big Sur and you’ll picture something like the Great Ocean Road.
Here are a few highlights:
Not far past Lorne, we stopped at a tiny hamlet called, I think, Kennett River where we had been told to look for koalas. We hadn’t been parked for more than five minutes when Kay spotted one clinging to the branch above us. Since Koalas sleep about twenty hours a day, we were fortunate that ours was awake and actually peering down at us, giving me a photo opportunity.
The Twelve Apostles are a well-developed tourist site. This is fortunate because the crowd of international travelers was large. As we walked from the spacious car park and through a passage under the highway, we heard a dozen different languages spoken, most of which we couldn’t even identify. On a long, wooden esplanade we finally looked at the tall, offshore limestone formations that someone has glorified with the name “Apostles.” We learned they were originally known as “the sow and her piglets”, which somehow seems more Australian but probably would not inspire as many tourists to visit.
Millennia of erosion by wind and sea have left these giant blocks stranded offshore away from the mainland cliffs. Their shapes are striking, as are the surrounding cliffs and surf. At the moment of our visit, a heavy mist surrounded them through which the sun tried vainly to break through. I took photos from several angles along with hundreds of others doing the same thing.
A few short kilometers later and we found the Port Campbell Motor Inn where Kay had booked a room from her iPad earlier in the day. It is a small motel comfortably located on the edge of this small town.
This evening we ate the best dinner we had had in a long while. My meal was a grilled filet of Barramundi, a fish from the Southern Ocean whose white flesh is very tasty. Kay enjoyed a lovely piece of swordfish. We drank Pinot Grigio and for dessert shared a serving of rhubarb crumble. It had been a good day.
The following morning, the inn’s bright, knowledgeable owner put a bug in our ear about what to look for going forward. Originally from New Zealand, she is part Maori. She remarked that in the past nearly everyone in her country spoke English only while today many whites speak the Maori language.
Not far from Port Campbell is a limestone formation called The Arch. It is a wall of stone projecting out from the coast with a large opening created by the ceaseless activity of the sea. Watching the movement of the waves around this formation, we thought about the immense power of the sea to eat away at the coastline and leave such interesting sights. The land all along this stretch of coast is flat, speaking to the powerful offshore winds that come, especially in the winter. Nothing is south of here except Antarctica. Today, at the end of summer, although the sun was shining, the air was cool with a strong breeze.
I wish we could say more about the dense foliage. These are indigenous plants we don’t recognize. They are exceptionally hardy, though. They have to withstand the icy winds of winter and well as the scant rainfall and burning summer heat.
A short distance further, we stopped to look at another formation known as London Bridge. Here a longer projection, hollowed out by the sea in places, gives the appearance of a bridge. A couple of years ago, its span closest to shore collapsed, stranding some people who had just walked across it. They had to be rescued by helicopter.
A couple more hours of driving brought us to the small town of Port Fairy. We had been told about the particular charm of its colonial-era homes.
The quaint aspect of these cottages was indeed charming. In a used bookstore, we bought a copy of Bill Bryson’s Neither Here nor There. On the last page of this account of a long voyage Bryson had once made through many European countries ending in Istanbul, he describes his mood:
“I missed my family and the comfortable familiarities of home. I was tired of the daily drudgery of keeping myself fed and bedded, tired of trains and buses, tired of existing in a world of strangers, tired of being forever perplexed and lost, tired above all of my own dull company.”
There is no doubt that long-range, independent travel can produce these emotions. We feel them ourselves at times when we arrive tired in an unfamiliar town or city and try to find a good meal and a bed.
After Port Fairy we drove on toward our day’s destination of Mount Gambier, still a least two hours away.
On impulse, I took a detour, following signs to a place called Cape Nelson where there is a historic lighthouse. Kay grumbled at the time we were losing. However, she was mollified when we reached the pretty white tower with is red roof and found that next to it was a café that served her afternoon coffee. It was comfortable spot. On the wall was a large movie poster from the 1950s, advertising an MGM production of The Student Prince.
The man running the café lives on the grounds and was only too happy to chat with us. We find this to be particularly common among the Australians we meet casually. Without reserve, we immediately become their “mates.” Their friendliness is one of the most pleasant things about traveling in this country.
We finally got to Mt Gambier and found the run-down Avalon Motel, another of the budget hostelries that Kay had identified and booked while I drove. Again, the desk man engaged us in conversation and told us that while in town we had to take a look at the Blue Lake, the town’s greatest attraction. It is a small body of water contained in an ancient, volcanic crater. Fed by water from the region’s aquifer, this bright blue reservoir provides the town’s water supply. At the deskman’s urging, we drove up to take a look at it before settling down for a much needed nap.
Before leaving Mt Gambier we took a look at two gardens, unusual because they had been planted in two deep sinkholes back in Victorian times.
The first and smaller of the two, the Cave Garden, is right in the middle of town. It has viewing platforms, steps, and a curving ramp that let us walk down into it. Its mature plantings were pretty even though the flower season had nearly ended.
To find the second garden, named after a certain Mr. Umpherston who developed it in the 1880s, we had to drive to the edge of town. Larger and more grandiose than the Cave Garden, it is surrounded by a large park that was part of Umpherston’s plan.
By this time, we had left the Great Ocean Road far behind but we still had a long way to go to reach Adelaide. We would spend one more night on the road at the seaside town of Victor Harbor located on the Fluerieu Peninsula. All the driving that day was along two-lane blacktops, much of it through forested areas and grasslands. There was very little traffic, and for long stretches I was able to set the cruise control at 110 kph and just steer the car.
Near the end of our drive, near a place called Wellington, we had to cross the Murray River on a small ferry known in local parlance as a punt. It was pulled back and forth across the river by a cable.
Victor Harbor is an attractive and well-appointed place. I counted four petrol stations as we drove around looking for our motel whose new owner had only just changed its name. Once settled in, we sat outside our room sipping red wine and looking at a palm tree and a microwave tower against the sky in front of us. The air was fresh at this mellow hour and very relaxing after our long day’s drive.
That evening, our last quiet one before entering the excitement of Adelaide, we shared a delicious seafood antipasto and a salad at Nino’s, probably the best restaurant in town. With glasses of Crowded House, a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, Kay and I replayed our favorite moments of the last few days, wondering what the next phase of our journey would bring.