Australia’s Great Ocean Road: From Apollo Bay to the Twelve Apostles

Along the Great Ocean Road, Sea Changers are Spotted

A swamp wallaby along the Great Ocean Road
A swamp wallaby along the Great Ocean Road

I’m happy to report that Ambien is a perfect antidote for a 15 1/2 hour plane trip. For the first time in more than 50 overseas trips over many years, I slept soundly, and awoke with a very pleasant piece of news… there were only two more hours till touchdown in Melbourne. Refreshed, I was, and it made our drive down through Geelong and to Apollo Bay a pleasant, scenic journey with no passing out in the passenger seat.

Now I’m perched atop a big hill overlooking the Southern Ocean, at an elegant restaurant called Chris’s Beacon Point, where the dining room is glass walled and the ocean laps the shore far down the hill, and eucalyptus trees border the perimeter.

Up in those trees, I’m told, are many koala bears, who unfortunately, in recent years have suffered an outbreak of marsupial chlamydia, causing their numbers to drop. Still, I was assured that along with kangaroos, sitings of koalas will be frequent as I walk along the Great Ocean Walk which straddles this great ocean here at the bottom of Australia.

listenradioI asked my host, Natalie, what people are talking about here in Victoria, and she said that a levy on wages was the topic du jour. The floods that ravaged an area of eastern Australia bigger than the size of Germany has prompted the prime minister, Julia Gillard, to call for a $1 per week levy on every Australian’s paycheck to pay for flood damage.

For those making over $100K, it will be $5 a week. And most people here are strongly in favor of the tax. Other news concerns a visit by Elizabeth Hurley to her former boyfriend, cricketer Shane Warn. A headline in the UK’s Daily Mirror proclaimed “Hurley to Bed!”

It’s summertime here, and in this part of Victoria, people make what they call “Sea changes” which means they move to a seaside village like Torquay, or Lorne, and enjoy life by the sea as retirees. Others make “tree changes” moving to the rural woods.

A view along the Great Ocean Road
A view along the Great Ocean Road

Down here is surfing central, the town of Torquay is lined with surf shops and the beaches are filled with vans with boards atop them and people zipping up wetsuits to plunge into the waves. The water’s very, very cold, yet people still venture in. The waves are strong and around every corner is a million-dollar view.

Tomorrow I’ll wake up to lace up my boots for a 22 km hike with my guide. I’m pretty sure I’m up for this long hike, since having a guide to talk to will make the long journey a easier. Oh, and they’re taking my big suitcase ahead to my digs tomorrow night at the Aire Valley Guest House.

Waking Up to a Million Dollar View at Chris’s Beacon Point

I’m up and ready here at Chris’s Beacon Point, a lovely spot perched high above Apollo Bay with fantastic views of the Southern Ocean. This place has a long history, first opening up here in 1979 and is all pinewood, with floor to ceiling glass walls that let diners soak in this amazing view. When it was first built it seated just 30 diners and eventually was expanded into two levels to accommodate 120. In 2003 it was destroyed by a massive fire, and later that same year it was rebuilt to the way it looks today.

Dinner had Chris Talihmanidis’ Greek heritage baked right in. An eggplant dish called Imam Bayaldi was slow cooked stuffed halved eggplant with onion, feta, herbs and pine nuts, subtle and redolent of that wonderful meaty vegetable’s delicious taste. Then a fillet of a New Zealand fish called harpuka, flaky and simply grilled. Marvelous!

Bedroom view of the Southern Ocean from Chris's Beacon Point, Apollo Bay.
Bedroom view of the Southern Ocean from Chris’s Beacon Point, Apollo Bay.

I tossed and turned last night, thinking about when my guide would arrive and how much I should plan on carrying with me on today’s long-assed 22 kilometer trek. I don’t want to make my guide, Greg, be my porter, and Auswalk, the company that leads these hikes, will bring my luggage ahead for me. But I think it’s always a challenge to figure out the right amount of stuff you need to keep warm, to keep bugs off, and to shield oneself in case of rain.

One of my favorite things about Australia is that it’s in some ways a lot like America, it’s familiar, and most people are hip to what’s happening on our faraway shores, and often share their opinions and have heard about what’s happening in the US.

Many of the people I’ve here lean to the left, so I guess it’s more like the America of Massachusetts and not of Alabama or some of our Tea Party influenced parts of the country.

The Great Ocean Walk

My feet are sore, but it’s a good kind of sore, after our 22 kilometer hike on Victoria’s Great Ocean Walk. I’m happily dry and comfy sipping tea at the Great Ocean Ecolodge, located on a flat plain where in the distance a herd of kangaroos are munching on grass. My guide Greg Denney and I set out at about 9 and in the first ten minutes, spotted a swamp wallaby in the bush. It’s not the woods, he told me, it’s the bush, and it’s not lumber they cut, it’s timber. Gotta get the Aussie vernacular right!

Dinner with an International Group and Sharing Stories of Travel

Everyone wears floppy hats while sitting in the Australian sun.
Everyone wears floppy hats while sitting in the Australian sun.

At dinner last night, here at the Great Ocean Ecolodge, the discussion wove all over the map. Seated with me were a retired couple from the UK, Mark, and Jackie, a journalist from Italy named Barbara, and her hostess, a rep from Victoria Tourism named Margaret. As the Victorian chardonnay flowed, we shared stories of some of our travels and got to know each other in that special way that far-flung travelers often do…it was my favorite kind of evening.

Though we are staying here in this ecolodge, the meal was fancy paella and served on elegant china. We began by joking a bit about Italy’s embattled Berlusconi, who must be an embarrassment to any Italian citizen after his recent escapades with the underage prostitute, among other things.

“Oh, God,” said Barbara, “Please don’t even say that name!” She said that the first thing she saw when she touched down in Melbourne was another splashy tabloid headline and she just can’t take it anymore.

The discussion moved to the recent trip that Oprah Winfrey made in December with her entire audience of 302 ‘ultimate viewers’ and brought them to New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, Northern Territory and Tasmania. The big group was split up and the viewers spent about four days among these far-flung locations. Margaret as a press liaison was flown up to Sydney for a final ceremony and was as star-struck as any American would be in the presence of the Great O.

The British couple to my left told us about being fanatic fans of Manchester United, “we’ve got season tickets!” and how much they admire David Beckham, despite his less than a stellar stint on an American soccer team. They trip here would be for six weeks, and it was clear that they had enjoyed the leisurely pace that such time affords.They asked me as an American where I would suggest they go in the states, and I told them my usual answer: California since it’s got it all and the weather is always nice.

Brad West shows us boomerangs at Cape Otway Lighthouse.
Brad West shows us boomerangs at Cape Otway Lighthouse.

I took a walk at twilight, just in time to see a herd of kangaroos loping around in a backfield. Just before the evening darkened, a giant male ‘roo about six feet high popped past the window. Yeah, we are definitely not in Kansas anymore

The Aborigines Had Penicillin Thousands of Years Before We Did

Our day of hiking today on the Great Ocean Road took us to an iconic lighthouse near where for years, many ships found themselves beached on reefs. It’s called the Shipwreck coast and today, the once crucial lighthouse is no longer illuminated, replaced by a simple solar-powered light that’s much less impressive. My guide, Greg told me he worked her for a few months guiding the tourists and telling the story of the Cape Otway Light, and the background of the WWII radar bunker and the signal flags that are still flown from the big flagpoles that look out on this ferocious sea. “If you traveled far, far in that direction, you’d hit Antarctica,” Greg said.

My guide, Greg told me he worked her for a few months guiding the tourists and telling the story of the Cape Otway Light, and the background of the WWII radar bunker and the signal flags that are still flown from the big flagpoles that look out on this ferocious sea. “If you traveled far, far in that direction, you’d hit Antarctica,” Greg said.

We ducked down a path through the woods, into a canopy of vines and came upon an Aborigine hut. Inside we met Brad West, who was reading the sports section but was happy to jump up and welcome us. He’s an interpretive guide here, and he showed us to a table where five various-sized boomerangs were laid out, along with clubs, hook-shaped pieces of wood, and behind him, an array of spears.

“This one was used to take down kangaroos and wallabies,” he said, holding the biggest of the boomerangs. I asked him what everyone wonders when the see these ancient Aborigine devices: Do they come back when you fly them?

“They can, but it would be tough to catch this one because it’s sharpened on the edges and would hurt coming back at you,” he said. They used to hit the animals while they were on the run, cutting out their giant outstretched legs, and then they’d club them to death. He picked up a smaller boomerang and said it was used to nail ducks while they flew.

Grass trees on the Great Ocean Walk, near Johanna Beach
Grass trees on the Great Ocean Walk, near Johanna Beach

He explained that the boomerang would curve around and hit them from the side, as they were flying, and I wondered how the hell anyone could hit a flying bird with a curved piece of wood. “People weren’t as distracted as they are now,” Brad explained. “They had to learn how to do this, they didn’t have cellphones to waste time on…and they spent hours learning how, since they had to eat!”

We moved outside to a plant with bulbous yellow inch-long fruit, that he said was called a kangaroo apple. When it’s ripe it’s an orangish red color he said. The plant also emits estrogen when it fully matures, and the indigenous peoples knew enough to use it as one of the earliest forms of birth control. Then he showed us another plant, that when we tasted it had a salty taste. This was used to season fish and eels, to make them taste better.

To catch said eels, he pointed to a crude basket trap made of woven reeds. “They would set a bunch of these in a stream, and pile up rocks so the eels and fish all had to swim into them. Then they’d go take a nap and when they came back it would be full of fish.” People weren’t as distracted as they are now, nothing except perfecting these crafts, and after lots and lots of practice, they’d get good at it.

He told a story about another bush, this one’s leaves were tucked up into the cheek to give someone more energy. “A man came here and asked me if it was sort of like Viagra, and I told him yeah, that might be an effect. The man grabbed a bunch only to have his wife come up and berate him, telling him to stop picking that man’s plants! When his wife’s back was turned and they were leaving, I handed him a bunch to take with him.”

Tonight when I arrived at the Aire Valley Guest House, proprietor Martin Tunley told me that Aborigines also knew of a plant that had the same properties as penicillin. “So that many thousands of years ago, before we ever had it, they had the miracle drug of penicillin!”

Uni girls at the Blanket Bay Campsite on the Great Ocean Walk.
Uni girls at the Blanket Bay Campsite on the Great Ocean Walk.

Sometimes you just gotta hitch a ride…

When I was about 13, and attending my beloved sleep-away Camp Kokosing, we went up to the St. John River in Quebec for a canoe trip. We began paddling up that big river in the hot August sun and anticipated three more days of hard paddling and broiling. Then the counselors turned to us and said, ‘why don’t we hitch a ride?”

We soon flagged down a speeding motorboat piloted by a few cute Quebecois girls in bikinis. We hand gestured to them that we wanted to hitch a ride, and my counselor continued to try to talk to them in his fractured high school French.

We got our message across and traveled about ten miles up that river holding onto the side of their motorboat, and finally the cute girls admitted that they spoke perfect English and began chatting up our counselor who was much relieved that he no longer had to try and speak French.

Today I was reminded of this… of pursuing the fun and not worrying about the program and so, we blew off our planned day-long hike and instead headed out in my guide Greg’s 4×4 pickup. It was all my idea! We drove up a to the trailhead above Johanna Beach and we hiked through a forest of low grass trees. These are funny looking spiky three foot high trees that look like our ornamental grasses.

They’re Dr. Suess-like trees, lime green, underneath a larger canopy of gum trees. The hike took us about a mile, and in many places over wooden boards and then out onto an incredible view of cliffs and the crashing sea far below.

Later on, we drove the 4×4 through hilly pastures, continuing to have to open and close cattle gates, up one of roughest roads I’ve ever driven, let alone walked. That Mazda truck with fold-down sides just kept on chugging, despite huge ruts and hills that were quite daunting.

Sleepy koala on the trail. We petted him. He didn't mind.
Sleepy koala on the trail. We petted him. He didn’t mind.

Then we stopped at a former potato shed that was offering coffee and meat pies and a wide selection of foods and stuff in one side, on the other side a museum that showed some of the histories here of the old logging days and the giant saws they once used. A newspaper clipping reported that in 2003 some people unknown to anyone illegally went and cut down 70 huge trees right near the Great Ocean Road, and nobody has ever solved the mystery of who committed this crime against nature and against the local citizenry.

We had a flat white then we drove some more and Greg showed me his homestead and some of his 290 acres overlooking the Southern Ocean. We drove across a field on a steep hill, chased some big old kangaroos down the hill and he showed me a plot of land overlooking this incredible ocean view where he has a solar panel and a windmill…and where he’s cleared some land for his eventual new home that he will build.

In this part of Australia people in the country, all use cisterns for water. Few have piped water, instead, they pipe the pure rainwater from their gutters into 10,000-gallon tanks and use it for all of their needs. Some even have a system that diverts the first five minutes of water away from the tank then it automatically switches to fill the tank so none of the dirt from the roof gets in. Clever and so eco-friendly. Love that.

We chased the ‘roos around and then later in the afternoon, Greg told me that we’d been invited to a barbecue. Me, go to a party with a bunch of strangers? YES! of course!

So we proceeded to his pal David’s house who is a photographer and his wife Sandra who was celebrating her 50th and we enjoyed sausages some really nice Victorian Chardonnays and sat out on the deck all wearing our hats and sunglasses. The total of nine people all wearing funny floppy hats… that’s because this country leads the way in skin cancer so everyone slathers on the sunscreen and shares their hats.

At the end of the Great Ocean Walk, with a few of the 12 Apostles behind me
At the end of the Great Ocean Walk, with a few of the 12 Apostles behind me

Through Swamp and Dale, the G.O.W. is a Well-made Trail

By Max Hartshorne on February 14, 2011

Here is the view that awaits anyone smart enough to venture down here to the very bottom of Australia’s Victoria state. Most people visit these striking limestone escarpments by car, driving down the Great Ocean Road.

But others, like many we met this week, wouldn’t think of driving and instead, spent seven nights walking the length of this well-maintained 91-kilometer trail.

There are so many different views on this trail… sylvan glades where koalas munch on leaves so close you can touch them, and wooden boards that take you over wet areas, and carefully constructed stairs, some as many as 364 in a row, like the entrance down to Wreck Beach.

Through it all, you are guided by the little blue signs that mark this famous and wonderful trail. My guide Greg Denney showed me several areas where the Great Ocean Road had to be moved back away from the cliffs, which like the escarpments, are constantly being eroded.

One famous arch last year fell away, so now these two apostles are no longer joined. He said that people used to walk way, way out, tempting fate on the top of these high cliffs, but now it’s fenced in to keep crazies from tumbling down.

Public art is everywhere in Melbourne. Here is a piece in the Docklands.
Public art is everywhere in Melbourne. Here is a piece in the Docklands.

The best part of this journey is that it takes you over such an incredibly diverse cross-section of territory, and the planners had it right… everyone goes in the same east to west direction, so you don’t run into that many people. When you do, they’re uniformly polite, and even though we saw one woman with a puppy (a big no-no) most people follow the rules, bring all of their trash out, and behave like mensches.

You’ll read more and see more in just a little while when I post my full story. Now I am signing off, stowing my hiking boots, and enjoying some great food at a few of Melbourne’s best restaurants–including Gordon Ramseys’ Maze tomorrow night. Thanks for joining me…how do your feet feel?

Melbourne’s Wheel Didn’t Turn Long

For the past few days, I’ve been in Melbourne, Australia’s proud and immigrant enriched second city. It’s a city of four million and right on a bay, St. Kilda is the local seashore. The last time I was here in 2008, I saw a gigantic steel wheel on the horizon, it looked like the London Eye.

It turned out to be a complete and utter bust –- it was built at a cost of $300 million, it ran for two months, then the glass began cracking in the pods that people rode in, and soon it was shuttered. It was part of the city’s attempt to create a London-style attraction down by the water called the Docklands.

Unlike in London, and although there are tall glass-fronted buildings and a glittering array of yachts, there are few people who come down to this part of the city and so far the experiment is a work in progress with lousy results.

A boat cruise down the Yarra River. It's a great spot for biking and walking too.
A boat cruise down the Yarra River. It’s a great spot for biking and walking too.

But on yesterday’s circumnavigation of the city by bike, we got a look at a robust and thriving metropolis where state capital workers lounged on lush green laws, uni students on holiday sunned in their quad, and underneath that quad an innovative scheme captured every drop of rainwater using giant funnels that prop up the car park.

Many smart initiatives have resulted from the decade-long drought here, and water saving innovations continued, even though the rains came back. You see signs explaining that the watering is using recycled water, you see cisterns everywhere, and in this hotel, called the Alto, the main bragging point is that they’re 100% wind-powered and the average guest uses just 35 gallons a day versus 240 in a conventional hotel.

They give free parking to anyone in a hybrid, offer Prius transportation to the airport and have little recycling separators in each room. The best thing about this hotel: the wi-fi is free!

That’s another topic that goes round and round here–the state of the internet and how much people have to pay for bandwidth. Again and again, I was told that people want better connections and that they pay so much for just 6 gigabytes of downloads. When I shared details of my unlimited bandwidth AT&T plan their mouths dropped.

There is a $37 billion big idea being considered to fix this, and get high-speed internet to all of the citizens, but that’s still a bunch of meetings and votes away. For now, people want it and slow internet is a curse that everyone wished would go away but no one thinks it will. There are not enough people in the country to come close to paying for it.

One man I met had to live in Lavers Hill, 22 km from his guest house because the connection wasn’t fast enough for them to do any business on.

All around the city center you spot stations with a row of bright blue bicycles that people can use. It’s like the system in Paris, where the Velibes have been a big hit. But here, the Nanny state gets in the way of a fully successful program. There is a strictly enforced bike helmet law, and so the idea of popping open one of these bikes from their racks and using it instead of a taxi is not practical. Who walks the city streets with a bike helmet in their hands?

Too, the way it’s designed has the fingerprints of government all over it. There’s a daily ‘access rate’ of $2.50 and it’s free for the first 30 minutes. But if you keep the bike all day it would cost a whopping $85! In France, advertising pays the way and nobody worries about helmets. Here, though, a little too much government keeps a good idea from really taking off.

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Max Hartshorne
Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.