Friday, March 06, 2009

The Great Ocean Road

We arrived in Melbourne and got a Taxi to the Maui Rentals depot to pick up our campervan. The Maui Spirit 2 is basically a Toyota Hiace Full-Size van retro-fitted to include everything for on-board living except showers and toilets. It's configurable to have sleeping quarters either in the loft or in the main cabin, has a refrigerator (that can run off a deep cycle marine battery), a micro-wave (hooked up only), a butane powered stove, and a full set of cooking and eating utensils.

The first thing that struck us about it was how much like a sailboat the camper van was. Everything stows away into locking cabinets, just like a boat, and there are little cubby holes under the cushions just like on a boat for storage.

Driving a big van around the narrow streets of Melbourne is definitely not for the faint of heart. You always feel like you're hogging way too much space, and it was my first experience with a vehicle that big and heavy. After a few misadventures (including not being able to find a caravan park, and having to return to the rental place because of some misplaced items, and breaking a couple of glasses by forgetting to secure one of the cubby holes), we finally got the boat, uh, campervan provisioned and parked at an expensive Melbourne park --- a powerless unit for $29.50 (including a 10% discount for driving a Maui).

We caught the tram down to Melbourne to chow down some Asian food, knowing we would not be able to get food of this quality for the rest of the trip.

The next morning, we woke up to find that some rain had fallen over night, but the van exhibited no condenstation at all, since it was so well ventilated. We started off along the road to the Great Ocean road. The weather was rainy, and not at all friendly but by the time we pulled into the town of Torquay, things had gotten quite a bit better.

Torquay is supposedly the surfing capital of the world, but when I asked about surfing lessons, none were to be had for the afternoon, apparently due to some regulations about surfing schools. They were happy to rent me a surf-board, but given that I didn't know what I was doing, I felt that to be pointless.

We headed down the coast to Apollo Bay, stopping every so often for sights, but by the time we got there, the sky had cleared up and I decided it would be wise to head over to see the 12 Apostles --- Lisa wanted to do a Platypus spotting eco-tour, but we could not do that day because he was all booked up, and since that tour happened in the evenings and dusk, we would have to camp out in Bruce's town of Forest to participate.

We got to Port Campbell around 5:30pm, secured a powered camping spot, and then proceeded to the 12 Apostles, eating a quick dinner in the car park before heading out to shoot the sunset. I don't know what the results of that shoot are, but we stayed out until well after dark, and then headed back into Port Campbell for some shut-eye.

We had seen some brochures for the Ortways Fly Treetop walk, and since that was along the way to Forest, decided that it would be a worthwhile stop. However, not before a second visit to the 12 Apostles and Gibson's steps for another look at those gorgeous sea-stacks and limestone formations.

The Otway Fly treetop walk was fascinating since you get a chance to see the rainforest at the canopy level, including a 50m tower. What's enjoyable is how cool it is on a hot day. Temperate rainforests are definitely a ton nicer than tropical ones --- I might even be able to walk i none some day without itching all over just from the associasion of a rain forest with nasty creepy bugs.

After that, we noted that we were near the Triplet falls, and went in the for a lunch in the parking lot and a visit to the falls, which weren't too impressive as there hasn't been much rain lately (those of you who've hard of the Australian wildfires know that since it's been all over the news). The walk, however, was nice and cool despite the warm day, and the loop nicely arranged.

The drive over C159 to Forest was narrow and slow --- it would make an excellent cycling road except for all the signs to watch out for logging trucks. I did not see a single other car on the road, however, let alone a logging truck, so a cyclist might very well find himself in luck except on logging days. Arriving in Forest, we found where we were to meet Bruce (our guide for Platypus spotting), and then went to the Caravan park, where I negotiated a $22 stay for the night with power hookup.

The Platypus tour was interesting. Bruce told us quite a lot about running one of these eco-tour business (he also ran a mountain bike tour business in town, as well as a mountain bike rental business). As a one man shop, he spent quite a bit of time in paper-work, getting accreditation (which turns out to be mostly writing policy and filling out paper work), permits, etc. The platypus sighting itself was in Lake Elizabeth, part of the national park (we could have camped for free there, except for all the warnings about how the parks were closed due to weather). The lake itself was only 50 years old, and quite placid when we started off despite a building wind. We did spot 3 platypuses, and Bruce was adept at anticipating where they were. Lisa, however, was disappointed because she got much better views of the platypuses at the Sydney aquarium. You didn't really get to see the entire body of the platypus, just the eyes, and a shadow of a bill, and then a bit of the body when it dives.

We slept well that night, but we awakened in the middle of the night to quite a bit of rain and wind. The next morning was quite cloudy and windy. The wind was the reason why the parks were closed (a bit of fire can spread quickly in a bit of wind), but the rain seemed like it should have kept the fire danger low. Nonetheless, with no way to visit the National Parks, we decided to drive the Great Ocean highway and visit the Cape Ortway Lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse in Australia. That gave us a chance to see Koalas in the wild, as well as take in some history.

After that, the rain started up in earnest, so much so that when we passed the 12 Apostles again, Lisa opted not to stop. Past Port Campbell, we spotted a hitch-hiker hiking in the rain, but were too late to stop for him. We went on to see some other sights, such as London Bridge and the Grotto, all artifacts of the limestone in the area being moulded, dissolved, and shaped by the waves. We were relieved to see that someone else did pick up our hitch-hiker, but were surprised to find him again walking the road some time later, and this time stopped to pick him up, which was how we met Evan.

Evan was an industrial engineer in Seattle, and was now travelling in Australia for 8 weeks. He did however seem to have brought rain everywhere he traveled, in Tasmania and elsewhere, and was in the middle of the Great Ocean Walk when the wind and rain came and blew all his hopes of completing the walk out of the window. He was nevertheless in good humor, and seemed determined to get to Portland today.

We weren't going quite that far, however, and when we got to Warrambool to fuel up, I got a tip as to a caravan park that was out of the wind. We dropped Evan off after that and went to the caravan park, which charged $30 for a powered-site and $26 for an unpowered-site. While preparing for dinner, Lisa spotted an ad for a laser and sound show called Shipwrecked. The park even had a discount for the show for us, and was kind enough to call and arrange everything for us, including a taxi (we were reluctant to tear down everything we had put up).

The show turned out to be a video about the two survivors of the Loch Ard, the skipper and crew, and what it was like to travel back in those days (a 13 week journey from England to Australia). Then it was followed by a walk through the historic recreation of the village of Warrambool as it was back then. Finally, the show itself, which was a laser projection onto a veil of water generated by fountains. Lisa was quite captivated and I was impressed. Definitely recommended.

Rain and wind continued to greet us in the morning, and my attempts to find surfing or scuba diving fell completely through due to the weather. We drove to Port Fairy, a nice little town and had a glorius meat-pie for me and a vegetarian pie for Lisa. If someone ever figures out how to import this food to Palo Alto they will be wealthy for life. Port Fairy was charming, but it was too early to stop there, so we moved on to Portland, where we were directed to drive onto the breakwater, and then visit the Enchanted Forest, which was indeed very enchanting. Looking for a caravan park that was out of the wind, we eventually settled on the Portland Claremont Caravan Park, which only had unpowered sites (for $20) left when we decided upon them.

There, we met Isabel and Samuel, who were on a 4WD journey around the world. They had started in Lucern in Switzerland, where they lived, and driven all the way to Turkey, through the Middle East, and then through Russia before boarding a ship to Australia. All through this trip, we'll meet Americans traveling for 4-8 weeks, and then we'd meet Europeans, who'd have been traveling for 1.5 years or more. We had a good time exchanging stories.

The morning started out nice, but soon were interrupted by the now familiar rain and wind. We saw notices about how bringing fruits and veggies into South Australia could result in a $2500 fine, so we had a quick breakfast of all the fruits and veggies we had left, and then set off to Bridgewater. There, we saw the blowholes of Portland, and a "Petrified Forest" that turned out to be a series of tubes created through some natural processes. We did see the strangest series of rainbows due to the weather conditions though --- first the middle part with the ends, then just the ends without the middle, then the left half, all within 10 minutes.

Driven forward by the rain, we drove on to Nelson, then across the border into South Australia. At a gas station, we spotted a picnic area across the street and used that to make a French toast lunch. The driving now became easy, the challenge mostly being the campervan acting like a huge sail, which makes side winds extremely unhappy for me to cope with.

We drove past Robe, where there was a memorial for Chinese who disembarked for the gold rush and then walked 200 miles to the work-sites because of the head-count taxes on incoming ships from China. Then on to Kingston. The campervan's modifications did not include a gas tank expansion, so I was forced to fuel up again there. (The gas tank is only 15 gallons or so!) We decided to shorten the next day's drive by camping out in Cooroong National Park along the south coast. The first camp-site we saw was none too good, though sheltered, so we kept going. This park is huge, lengthwise --- it took a good hour to drive to the next camp-site and scout it. The fees were extremely reasonable, though: $5. It was already 7pm by the time we got there, and with the overcast skies, there wasn't much of a sunset, despite the scenic nature of the campground.

The next morning, we woke up to the sound of birdcalls instead of car doors and stoves, which is what it should be like camping out in a National Park instead of a commercial campground. Rob, a camper next to us was going to be counting birds over the weekend as part of an international agreement to track migratory birds, and gave us quite a tutorial on rare birds and what they look like. Lacking binoculars, however, we could not do more than squint at little dots on a faraway lagoon.

The drive to Adelaide went very fast, much faster than I expected, given the long distance between drives. By noon, we were checking into the Adelaide Shores Caravan Park, which was where the rental place recommended we stay the night before our return, given our early flight the next day. We then cooked and ate lunch, took showers, and went for a walk on the beach, which was again bereft of swimmers, and then went to downtown Adelaide, where the information center told us we arrived right in the midst of the Fringe Festival, a collection of live events in the city. Lisa went and got a foot massage while I walked around figuring out that most of the comedy venues weren't sold out, and I could just pick up tickets at the door.

Lisa had found during the massage the name of a good place that made Curry Fish-head. We went to the "Best of Adelaide" comedy show at 6:00pm, where we found out that Adelaide was half an hour off from Melbourne, a strange time-zone difference. The show itself was worth $20, and got a good sampling of local talent, and got to see Gordon Southern live for about 15 minutes. It was a pity that his main show was at 9:00pm, or we would have gone for it.

The Curry Fish-head was excellent, with the right taste, though not perhaps with the right amount of spicyness, but Lisa already thought it was quite hot, so it was a good compromise.
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