Melbourne for a day and the Great Ocean Road 22 – 25 February 2020

The ferry arrived into Melbourne on Saturday 22nd at 8am and I got a tram to near my hotel. I’d booked the Ibis Styles Hotel in King Street as it wasn’t far from the meeting place for tomorrow’s ‘Great Ocean Road’ 3 day tour I’d booked back in October. I knew I couldn’t get into my room until 1pm so was expecting to drop my luggage off and go for a wander until check-in time however, I was pleasantly surprised to be told the room was ready. Breakfast was included but, as I had to leave before breakfast the next day asked if I could have it that day instead and it was agreed. Great customer service and the kind of service that will entice guests to return.

Despite not having had a proper sleep on the ferry I didn’t feel too bad so, after a shower and breakfast I went to the Melbourne Museum. This was my first visit and I spent all my time in one exhibition: ‘First Peoples’ which was brilliantly executed. As per the title it’s all about the indigenous people of Victoria from creation to present day, their languages, culture, objects, experiences using videos, touch screens, sounds etc. It was a fascinating insight, educational, thought provoking and sad. I listened to two people’s experiences of being taken from their families as children – members of the ‘Stolen Generation’ and the long apology by then Prime Minister Rudd to the Aboriginal people for what happened to them. It was extremely moving although, sadly, things haven’t changed a whole lot for them since and they’re still fighting for land that was taken from their ancestors. A horrific figure was given of 80% of Aboriginal people killed by the first Europeans and dying of diseases brought by them. They were classed as ‘savages’ and to be got rid of. I appreciate that those were different times but it’s still shocking that our predecessors were responsible for that ethnic cleansing. I felt quite drained and sad after it all so just had a quick walk around the rest of the museum, deciding to return another time.

Information about the ‘First People’s’ exhibition:

On Sunday 23rd I was to meet my tour bus at 7.10am near the Immigration Museum, a short walk from the hotel. There were a few others waiting already and eventually a bus came along with trailer attached for our luggage. We picked up a few more until there were 22 of us plus our driver/guide Gareth and his ‘assistant’ Pete, who didn’t do a great deal of assisting. Pete told me later that he was head of operations. I’d booked my tour through ‘Wildlife Tours’ but the company on the van was Autopia Tours which seemed to be a conglomeration of other tour companies including Intrepid, whose tours I used to sell when working for the Adventure Company, which is no longer and bought out by Intrepid Travel.

I got chatting to a woman called Wendy, aged 59, originally from Hull but living in Hitchen, Hertfordshire. She had flown to Sydney with her husband then to Melbourne. Her husband, Mike, is a microbiologist who is working on malaria and had come to Australia to give a lecture and work in a lab in Lorne for a few days, a small town we were to drive through later. They have 3 sons and Wendy told me all about them – Daniel, Tom and Luke. Daniel and Tom are musicians and Luke is a software engineer. I got on very well with Wendy and we chatted a lot about books and authors we enjoyed. She’d done a fare amount of travelling including hitchhiking across Africa with a male friend when in her 20s, which is something I would never have been brave enough to do. She told me she hand weaves on a loom.

Other people on the bus included 5 couples and several single young backpackers. Countries they were from included Slovenia, US, Denmark, Netherlands, France, Southern Ireland,Scotland and England and I tried to chat to as many as possible.

One young man, aged 20, who I was particularly struck by was Thomas. He seemed quite reserved and no one appeared to talk to him, possibly because they thought he couldn’t understand English. He was Asian in appearance and I thought Japanese as he had a little wispy beard and moustache, as some Japanese men do. So when I asked if he was Japanese he told me he was French but that his origins were Thai. He then told me he had been abandoned by his Thai mother on the steps of an orphanage when he was a baby and was adopted by a French couple. I thought he’d been adopted by them when he was a baby but later discovered he was 3, so not sure what happened in the meantime. I told him I’d been adopted too which instantly gave us a connection although I obviously hadn’t had the sad start he’d had in life. He told me he had met his mother and some of the extended family but they couldn’t easily communicate and, of course, his parents will always be his adoptive parents. He said he’d had a very happy childhood with them and they’d adopted another boy. Thomas was extremely bright and had done a lot of travelling. I really enjoyed talking to him and he seemed to enjoy my company too. There were two other young male backpackers, one from the Netherlands who was only 17, and the other from Denmark and Thomas soon got chatting to others in the group, although appeared to me happy wandering off on his own.

Another person who struck me was Hannah, a 19 year old German girl who had the most amazing smile all the time. I felt quite maternal towards her – maybe even grand maternal, and told her so, which made her chuckle. An American couple in their 60s were Fanny (which was actually her middle name, first name Nancy which might have been better!) and Michael. They amused me as they were constantly bickering, but not in an unpleasant way. Fanny seemed to worry a lot, particularly when there was walking involved as she thought she’d hold people up. I discovered she’d written a book on Patagonia (which has taken her 35 years but is not yet published) which I showed interest in as it’s a place I want to go to soon. Michael told me it’s very good. I asked if I could read the first chapter and she told me she’d send it all to me. Michael was a retired lecturer in, I think, civil engineering, and played guitar in a band called ‘Wilde Irish Women’ (Wilde after Oscar Wilde and can be found on YouTube) with a lady harpist and cellist – quite an unusual combo I thought. He said he had some important gigs coming up. They live in Amhurst, Massachusetts and I should very much like to see them again as I really liked them. I’m really enjoying meeting so many interesting people on my travels, none of whom I’d ever have got to know if I’d stayed in my rut at home. Long may this continue!

So, back to the tour: On leaving Melbourne we went across the West Gate Bridge which is 2.5km long and crosses the Yarra River. On 15th October 1970 the bridge collapsed killing 35 workers and remains Australia’s worst industrial disaster to date. We saw the Flinders range of mountains in the distance and passed a cement works silo in Geelong (where I’ve got a housesit in June) which had black and white murals of three unsung heroes: Corina Eccles (a direct descendant of the Queen of the Wadawurrung people; Cor Horsten, who worked at the cement works for more than 35 years and Kelly Cartwright, who represented Oz at the Beijing Paralympics in 2008 and won two medals at the London Games in 2012) by artist Tyrone ‘Rone’ Wright. I loved it but was unable to get a photo of it as it was so far in the distance but found one online:

Gareth stopped briefly to show us a house on a pole, called the Pole House, which was the only house to survive a bushfire in 1983 in Fairhaven, quite an expensive area. It’s known as the most photographed house along the GOR and can be rented as a holiday home and apparently sways in strong winds:

The Pole House (not my photo)

The Great Ocean Road is an Australian National Heritage listed 243km (151 miles) stretch of road along the south-eastern coast of Australia between the Victorian cities of Torquay and west to Allansford. Our first stop was at the Great Ocean Road Memorial Arch which commemorates the building of the road as a memorial to people of Victoria who served and died in the First World War. In 1917 the Great Ocean Road Trust was established by a prominent businessman from Geelong, Howard Hitchcock, to build the road and provide employment for returned servicemen. 3000 ex-servicemen worked with pick and shovel constructing the road from 1919 and it was completed in 1932. The road is the world’s largest war memorial and an important tourist attraction in the region, one that’s been on my list for many years so I was excited to be doing this trip. The current arch is the third:

Unfortunately Hancock died 3 months before the Road opened. Apparently the first car to drive along the GOR was Hancock’s with his hat on the front seat, followed by his wife in the second car. Originally the road was one lane meaning people could only drive in one direction, say on Tuesdays and back the other way on Wednesdays etc until the road was widened to as it is today, one lane in each direction.

We started on the GOR from Anglesea, named after its Welsh equivalent, 5km from the start at Torquay. The road hugs much of the coastline known as the ‘Surf Coast’ between Torquay and Cape Otway with the Bass Strait and Southern Ocean visible. Gareth stopped the van for us to take photos of the coast but it really wasn’t the best place and I couldn’t understand why he’d chosen that spot as we passed lots of better places. There were certainly a lot of people about.

We went through a town called Lorne, where Wendy pointed out the building where her husband Mike was working (but we didn’t stop) where the rich and famous go. There’s a festival over new year, it hosts a marathon which is very hilly and a bike race. There’s also a Pier to Pub race which is the largest Open Water swimming race in the world. The swim is a 1.2km course starting at Lorne Pier and finishing on the foreshore in front of the Lorne Surf Lifesaving Clubhouse. It attracts a lot of people but has been capped at 4000.

We stopped at Great Otway National Park for a short walk on a boardwalk through an ancient rainforest and part of an Aboriginal cultural landscape. The Otway black snail, a species of carnivorous air-breathing land snail, is only found here.

There is a Great Ocean Walk, a walk of more than 100km over 8 days (I should have done that!) which goes through the park to the Twelve Apostles rock formations (to come!).

We had lunch, which was provided for us, at Apollo Bay a coastal town. It hosts the annual Apollo Bay Music Festival and the Great Ocean Sports Festival. In 1936 a submarine telegraph and telephone cable from Apollo Bay to Stanley provided the first telephone connection to Tasmania from the mainland. The Apollo Bay Telegraph station closed in 1963 and is now a museum.

The portion of the GOR named the ‘Shipwreck Coast’ stretches from Cape Otway to Port Fairy, a distance of about 130km. Explorer, Matthew Flinders said of this section “I have seldom seen a more fearful section of coastline”. There have been about 638 known shipwrecks along Victoria’s coast although only about 240 have been found. On reading about this later I discovered that ‘The Historic Shipwreck Trail’ (which begins at Port Fairy and commemorates over 50 shipwrecks) shows some of the sites where gales, human error and, in some cases, foul play caused the ships to be wrecked.

We stopped at ‘The Twelve Apostles’, a collection of limestone stacks (the limestone having been formed by shells and other sea life that settled into layers in an ancient seabed) off the shore of Port Campbell National Park. There were never 12 stacks but 8, of which 7 remain as one collapsed in July 2005. They were formed by erosion when the harsh weather conditions from the Southern Ocean gradually eroded the soft limestone to form caves in the cliffs which then become arches that eventually collapse leaving rock stacks up to 50m high. Due to wave action eroding the cliffs, existing headlands are expected to become new limestone stacks in the future. The stacks were originally known as the Pinnacles then early explorers in the 19th century called them ‘Sow and piglets’, the ‘sow’ being Muttonbird Island, and the rest the piglets. They were later renamed, it’s thought in the 1920s, ‘The Twelve Apostles’ despite there only ever having been 8.

Next stop was Loch Ard Gorge. The story is that on 1 March 1878 the clipper, Loch Ard (named from Loch Ard, a Loch lying to the west of Aberfoyle and east of Loch Lomond, mewing ‘high lake’ in Scottish Gaelic) left Gravesend, England for Melbourne under the command of Captain George Gibb with 37 crew, 17 passengers and a mixed cargo weighing 2275 tons. On 31 May the passengers and crew held a party to celebrate the end of the voyage and they were to disembark the next day. Unfortunately a thick fog obscured the horizon and the clipper smashed into Muttonbird Island and sank within 10 or 15 minutes. A member of the crew, Tom Pearce, managed to survive and saved the only other person, an Irish girl called Eva Carmichael. They came ashore at what is now known as ‘Loch Ard Gorge’ taking shelter in a cave on the beach until they were rescued. Everyone else on the ship died. Tom proposed to Eva but she declined later marrying someone else when she returned home. Tom became a Captain. Some of the relics of the wreck are displayed at the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum in Warrnambool.

Next was London Bridge (or Arch) formed by a gradual process of erosion which was originally a twin span bridge but collapsed in the 1990s:

At each of these locations there were lots of other tourists and, at times, we had to jostle for space to take pictures.

Our last stop was the Bay of Martyrs, so called, according to local oral history which suggests that Europeans killed a large group of Aboriginal men by driving them off the cliffs nearby. The women and children were allegedly killed in a nearby swamp.

Bay of Martyrs

Most of us then went to have dinner in a Thai restaurant in Warrnambool, where everyone except me and a couple, Vera and Neil, was staying in a hostel. I’d upgraded to my own cabin for the night which had two bedrooms. At the restaurant I was sitting opposite an English girl called Heather who’s been living and working in Melbourne for over a year. I asked her what she was doing and thought she said “Barrister” which impressed me, but she clarified that she was a “Barista” which impressed me even more! It gave us a laugh.

I got picked up with Vera and Neil at 6.45am by Gareth who to us back to the hostel to have breakfast there with the others. Some had slept ok some hadn’t, Wendy later telling me that she felt quite tense at first in her bunk and worried that she might snore. I chatted to Vera who was Czech and had a mix of that accent and a Scottish accent as she was married to Neil who was Scottish. They lived in Perth and Vera was a nurse specialising in cardio thoracic conditions.

Then we were off at 7.30am to our first stop at Tower Hill, inside an extinct volcano, within which a series of small cones had been formed surrounded by a crater lake. The Hill was painted by the artist Eugene Von Guerard in 1855 who was the foremost landscape artist in the colonies at the time. More than 300,000 native trees have been planted over the past two generations creating an environment capable of sustaining native animals such as koalas, emus, kangaroos, magpie geese, echidnas, possums and water birds. We went on a short walk called ‘The Lava Tongue’ walk spotting a couple of koala bears in gum trees. There were also some little birds that kept dipping in and out of a water trough. I was rather struck by one which had a flash of red on its face and in its tail:

Then we went to the Grampians National Park, which is Heritage listed for its animal and plant life. It’s home to the largest number of significant and ancient Aboriginal rock art paintings and shelters in southern Australia although we didn’t see any. We stopped at the Brambuk (meaning white cockatoo, the red roof of which was shaped like a cockatoo although I couldn’t see it) cultural centre which brought to life the history of the Jardwadjali and Djab Wurrung and Aboriginal communities of south-western Victoria. which piled on more vicarious guilt on behalf of the first European settlers for the way they treated the Aboriginal people. It was here I discovered that 80% of the indigenous people were either massacred or died as a result of disease brought by the first settlers. While most people know the mountain range as the Grampians, Aboriginal people have always known it as Gariwerd (pronounced Gary word, which is a special place to them as is central to the dreaming.

From there we went to the little town of Halls Gap where some of us had a nice lunch in a cafe:

In the Grampians National Park are trails that lead to waterfalls, one of which is MacKenzie Falls. We had a walk down nearly 300 steps to the bottom of the falls, which was quite popular. It was extremely hot by this time and I got back up the steps sweating profusely, along with everyone else. I then took a flattish path to have a view from the lookout over to the top of the falls.

There had been a bush fire there in 2006 and all that was left of the cafe was its chimney:

Everyone got back on the bus sweating. We then went to a car park and a short walk to the Balconies for amazing views of the Victoria Valley and surrounding ranges. Then Reed’s Lookout, by the car park, for some stunning views over the entire Victoria Valley, Victoria Range, Serra Range, Lake Wartook and the Mt Difficult Range.

Our last stop was at the Baroka lookout where Slovenian, Thomas, jumped over the fencing and scared his wife Jasna (she introduced herself as Clarissa as an English name) by posing on a rock which he’d also done earlier and got told off for. She told me she owned a bookshop in Ljubljana and that Thomas is her nightmare:

Then after a brief stop at a supermarket to buy some drink, we went to the hostel where most people were staying and chatted while Pete cooked a meal of hamburgers and sausages accompanied by salads. Gareth took me, Vera and Thomas also Fanny and Michael (who’d decided to book an upgrade) to our motel, the Grampians Motel. I took some pictures of emus and kangaroos feeding in front of the motel:

It was another early start on Tuesday 27th with pick up by Gareth at 6.45am to have breakfast, as yesterday, at the hostel. Then it was off to Wonderland car park to do the Pinnacle walk which involved walking steeply up and over rocks (the Grampians’ version of the Grand Canyon) and some steps, through Silent Street for an hour and just over 2km distance. The rocks were fabulous, some appeared to be balanced quite precariously. The views on the way at at the top were well worth the effort and this was a real highlight for me. We were the only ones there but a few more people started arriving as we descended.

It was then time to say goodbye to some of the people on the tour who were being driving back to Melbourne, which included Fanny and Michael. So this was sad as, despite the short time together it felt like we’d been travelling longer as it often does on these type of tours with early starts and lots of stops. We had a group photo:

We then went to a little town called Horsham for lunch and found a nice cafe.

We stopped at an amazing lake called Loch Iel, meaning the Pink Lake, which was an incredible sight and very salty, the like of which I’d never seen before. Apparently the brightness of the hue varies according to the level of rainfall and the colour is the result of a pigment produced by the Salinibacter ruber bacteria. Salt has been harvested from the lake since the 1860s and now on average 20 tonnes a year.

We stopped briefly at a car park where there was paving delineating the border between the states of Victoria, which we were departing, and South Australia which we were entering established in 1836. In 1836 the land that is now called Victoria was part of the colony of New South Wales, the original Victorian border was drawn between the colonies of South Australia and New South Wales. Due to human error by numerous explorers and surveyors it took more than 75 years and a protracted legal dispute before the precise placement of the border was settled, resulting in the forfeiture of more than 1300 square kms of territory from South Australia to Victoria.

A little further on we stopped at a cafe for tea and cake in a place called Coonalpyn opposite which were more amazing murals on cement silos, South Australia’s first. The artist was Guido van Helten who painted 5 schoolchildren from Coonalpyn Primary School:

We crossed the Murray River and got to Adelaide just after 7pm. After the group had checked into the hostel, which was a lot nicer than the other two they’d stayed in, I went out with a few of them for a beer and pizza at a nearby pub which included Gareth and Pete. I was sorry to say goodbye, particularly to Wendy who I’d chatted to a lot, but also a little glad to get away from being herded about and not making my own decisions as to where to stop. I took a taxi to my Airbnb arriving just before 10pm and had a brief chat to Deb, my host, who quickly showed me around.

Looking back, I enjoyed the tour although it seemed as if we were hardly driving along the coast, probably because we were talking and because the road does go inland at times. It wasn’t quite what I expected but I enjoyed the variety of stops we made. It of course was rushed and it would be nice to take a lot longer, doing more walks and seeing more of the sights. Gareth, our driver, gave information over a microphone as he drove along but Wendy and I weren’t so sure it was all accurate, so I checked out a lot of facts afterwards to write here. He was a nice chap and it was evident he really enjoyed his job. I’m not sure I’d rush to do another short tour like that but it did additionally give me some more international contacts, which are always useful.

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