Bits and Pieces

Friday, May 07, 2004

Melbourne, Part III

I've been saving this for a while, and with the Iraqi torture stories flooding the blogosphere I think I'll continue with my occasional series about Australia. I left you hanging last time in Melbourne, playing football and drinking impossible amounts of Carlton Cold with my brother, Scott, and our friends Jonny, Olly and Dom.

I'm sure the majority of you care little about what I did on my holidays, but this is written both for my own benefit and for the friends I travelled with. If you are interested, you can see the beginning of the story here and here.

This time we move on west of Melbourne, onto the Great Ocean Road. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.

The Great Ocean Road, as is hinted in the name, is a stretch of road that meanders along the Victoria coast west of Melbourne. It starts around Torquay in the east, around 60 miles from Melbourne, and stretches to Warnambool in the west - all in all a touch less than 200 miles of pristine coastline. The road was built to create jobs for returning Australian soldiers after WWI, and by God they did a good job of it.

We'd decided to tour the road a week or two earlier. Things can get a little overcrowded in a one-bedroom apartment filled with five guys, and I wanted to see a little country before going home. And so we rented a Nissan X-Trail, a beast of a 4x4, for the weekend. The youngest of the group, I was only 20 and not eligible to be insured on the Beast, which may have been a factor in the excessive sweating the lads did when I drove (though it was more likely due to my erratic, 'speed limits are for wimps' driving).

We set off from Melbourne early on a Friday (hey, noon was early to us), and dropped by a friend's apartment to pick up some CD's for the drive (we later learned that a Shania Twain CD had slipped in. The horror). We'd decided to drive inland along the Princes Highway to Warnambool in a day, and then slowly make our way back to Melbourne along the Ocean Road for the rest of the weekend.

Anyway, we sped along the highway, stopping only once at Colac for snacks and beer (if only England had drive-thru liquor stores), and realised we'd left it too late in the day to make it to Warnambool. Leaving the highway, we headed south to Port Cambell, where we found lodgings in the excellent Twelve Apostles Motel, just off Booringa Road (if you're ever in the area I recommend it).

Leaving the lads to unpack their gear, me and Jonny took the car and set off in the fading light to race down Booringa Road, a 5km sand track, straight as an arrow. Pausing to put Crowded House on the CD player (stop laughing, it's the law in Australia), we screamed down the road at, er, lets just say inadvisable speeds and leave it at that, for the next half hour. I hadn't driven since passing my test 3 years earlier, so I may have pushed it a little too far (the melting needle on the speedometer was my first clue).

In the morning, after teasing the motel's pet pig with an Aussie Rules Football, we set off for the Twelve Apostles, a set of limestone stacks jutting out from the ocean. We have stacks on the coast of England, but nothing as spectacular as these. I took a few good photos, but they are currently Blu-Tack'ed to my cubicle at work, so I can't scan them in.

Most of the day was spent driving and stopping, driving and stopping as we'd reach other erosional landforms and stand, staring, until one of us pointed at their watch and noted that we'd have to be getting off if we wanted to make it to Apollo Bay for the Night. The sense of freedom you experience along the coast is incredible. You are totally alone (unheard of in UK tourist attractions), and you can just stand there and take in the view, feel the spray from the crashing waves of the Southern Ocean.

Ah, Apollo Bay. Elusive haven. Jewel of the coast. Let's just say it took some searching to get there. We'd broken off from the coastal road in the late afternoon to visit a set of waterfalls called the Triplet Falls on the Aire River. To this day we don't know what we did wrong, but we somehow ended up in the middle of the Otway National Park, a vast sprawling area of dense rainforest, on an unlit dirt track littered with fallen trees.

Now let me assure you that there is no use of hyperbole here. There were literally felled frikkin' trees across the road. And it was dark. Very dark. And it was raining. Really raining. It turned out later that this part of the state had no electricity due to the storm we were driving through. That explains the trees. If you can imagine the scene in Jurassic Park when Dennis Nedry tried to deliver those dinosaur DNA samples (remember the scene? Pouring rain, wrong turn, and an untimely death at the claws of that freaky spitting dino?) you'll have a good idea what we were up against. Except no dinosaurs. We had swamp wallabies, but they can be pretty damned scary when they jump out of nowhere in front of the car. You could see in their eyes that they'd kill and eat us the minute we turned our backs.

To cut a very long story short, we made it out of the forest after a couple of hours, during which time we had to get out no less than three times to clear trees from the road, while Jonny looked out warily from behind the steering wheel for hillbillies wanting us to squeel like pigs. In short, the lights of Apollo Bay were a sight for sore eyes.

Apollo Bay - a fantastically grungy little tourist town, packed to the rafters with travellers and surfers. We arrived around 8pm, and found the only remaining lodgings available. The town was packed because of the storms. It was the only town along the coast that still had electricity, and almost every family in this part of the state had booked into the motels. We dumped out things and set out for the nearest pub.

Understandably, my memories of the following hours are a little hazy. From what I have pieced together in the following years, we found ourselves in a little bar with a very talented acoustic guitarist singing away at the back. We joined in the singing, but I can't remember if everyone sang or if it was just us five. I do remember a lot of angry looks from the clientele, though.

At the end of the night we got chatting to a group of about ten Aussie lads, who demonstrated the various methods of kicking an Aussie rules football. I remember something about a 'spike' and a 'spiral' kick, but that's about it. They invited us to join them at a house party in the suburbs, and so we all piled into a minibus. I was the least drunk of the lads, and I remember feeling something was wrong about all this. Sure enough, we arrived after 15 minutes at our destination, a darkened house in a quiet suburb. We were the first out of the minibus, and it finally clicked that something was amiss when I heard the sound of an engine gunning. I turned in time to see their laughing faces through the back of the minibus window as it sped off down the road. Bugger, we'd been had.

We were lost. Drunk and confused, we had no idea which direction was the coast. Myself, my brother and Jonny chose to go back the way we had come, and Olly and Dom insisted the coast lay in the other direction, uphill. And so we set off on our respective routes: we found the coast after about an hour. Olly and Dom, on the other hand, found themselves in a forest. More precisely, back into the Otway National Park. They finally got home at about 5am, raving about the possums and wallabies that pursued them through the trees.

Olly woke up Sunday to the worst hangover imaginable. I had to pull over four times to allow him to vomit at the side of the road. By midmorning, thankfully, he had semi-recovered, and we had lunch in a surfers town named Lorne, before driving on through Anglesea and Torquay, the official end of the Great Ocean Road. We drove on to an animal sanctuary in from the coast, where we saw koalas, kangaroos and emus.

We decided not to head back to Melbourne through Geelong, and instead opted to take a ferry across Port Phillip Bay from Queenscliff, on the Bellarine Peninsula, to Sorrento, on the Mornington Peninsula. The ferry is a great way to sea the dolphins and seals living in the bay.

We finished up the weekend in Sorrento, a town I would gladly sell my soul to live in. It's as if the Victorian government rounded up all the beautiful women in the state and sent them to live together. The sun was shining, the dolphins were playing in the bay and we had ice cream. Really, what more can you ask of life?
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