They have country—Country—out here. Not like I know it, not a…alternation between bits that go up and bits that stay flat. Out here, the alternation fades, and you get landscape, where the entire scenery is homogenous to a single aesthetic. The road cutting a furrow through a world which only knows one way to be.
But we’re not there yet. We’ve only just left Adelaide, early in the South Australian morning, towels hung over the back seats to dry. I’m in there with them, the back seat is my home (well, mine and Ray Romano’s). Front seats alternate between the two Americans, depending on who’s driving. I switch when they do; Russell, being taller than I am, is not a fun person to sit behind. Severe cramp would ensue.
The first place we paused in (OH HELLO THERE AWKWARD TRANSITION FROM PRESENT TENSE, HOW ARE YOU?) was the village of Hahndorf. Those of you with decent mid-term memory may recall me mentioning this yesterday as being a little bit on the European side. It was …delightful. As you’ve probably gathered, I do get quite intensely nostalgic for anything Europe-flavoured which crosses my Antipodean path, to which faculty Hahndorf was like a syringe of sherbet straight to the bloodstream—a German-styled town, with a “Scottish shop” (Christ knows why. They had “see you Jimmy” hats and everything) and a ye olde sweet shoppe of the pay-by-the-ounce variety. Well, actually, pay by the 100g. But that’s a concession I was happy to deal with. They had bulls’ eyes.
This was the way of things for this amazing three days of undiluted freedom. We (they) drove along, played with the radio, rubbernecked at things on the roadside, and pulled in pretty much whenever we felt like it. It wasn’t until the third day that we actually reached the Gee-Oh-Ar itself…not that we lacked for entertainment. Having sampled Hahndorf’s numerous charms, we raced on across Southern Australia, the kilometers gliding smoothly past cloaked in gum trees, huge sweeps of vineyards, leaves glistening a verdant Bacchanalian tribute. And then onwards, on into the scrub.
29th November 2010, The Christmas Rocks, South Australia.
Dull, warm coloured rocks by the side of the infinite highway. Step above the windbreak scrub into a different climate. Aerated, anew. Feels like the heart of nowhere. Only soft features, low hills or slightly greener trees, break the scrub. And wouldn’t it be terrible to have to flee, run through the low dry bush breaking the wizened bushes with your knees and not watching where you put your feet as they stumbled and tripped into snake-sized crevices, not looking back but sooner or later it would have to get dark.
We closed our first day’s driving in the Dunkeld, just south of the Grampians National Park. This night was wonderful, absolutely fantastic in its improvisation. We got to the village’s sole food shop about two minutes before it closed, bought bread, tuna, fruit and sardines, and looked about for somewhere to eat it. Then we found one of Australia’s most divine pieces of public service; a public barbecue. You get these in parks the length of the country. They consist of a couple of hot plates sunk into a big brick table, and an ignition switch tucked away on the side. Obviously tuna and bananas aren’t classic barbecue fare, but a hot plate is a hot plate—and toasted tuna sandwiches (now officially the “hobo tuna sandwich”) are awesome. Oh, and making tea by boiling a teabag in an empty tuna tin on a public BBQ? A surprise success. I had a second cup.
Dunkeld had one last surprise; we went a-wandering around its outskirts in the fading light, Russell went on ahead, and when me and Morgan caught up, we found him standing, staring rapt across at something on the far side of a stream. We moved quietly up; Russell indicated, we looked. Wallaby! No—wallabies! Small and brown and bright-eyed and adorable. And wild. Wild Aussie animals. Happily, they were to be the first of many.
The night was spent in the car, stretched out in our various seats. From this I learned that the back seat of a car is not long enough to accommodate a grown man (okay: man-child) used to sleeping stretched-out, but that a straw sleeping mat, at a pinch, makes a serviceable blanket. We awoke in a susurrus of complaints, staggered into the showers which some utter genius had installed in the public toilets, and set off into the Grampians.
The Grampians are a whole bunch of perfectly sized tourist-mountains: small enough to climb in a couple hours, big enough to look pretty-damn-epic. A limited timescale gave us time enough to just tackle the one. We chose the closest, Mt Sturgeon (if you think that’s an awesome name, the adjacent peak to the East was Mt Abrupt. Mount Abrupt!). It started off as a gentlish procession through a light eucalypt forest, slowly getting steeper—as mountains do—until we found ourselves on the craggy precipices, admiring the vastness of Australia all around. Photos, you say? Photos you shall have!
Did I mention there was going to be more wildlife? Here it was. We saw wallabies skipping around through the forest on our ascent, and then, on the way down, a glimpse of an emu, rushing away through the forest. I was third in line, and only caught half an eyeful—until another of the great birds appeared, calmly surveying us from the right hand side. No photographs this time, but a magical, magical moment. I love wildlife moments. They’re a …privilege.
From here, we kind of doubled back on ourselves, heading southwest to the city of Mount Gambier, famous for its Blue Lake. The name is quite weirdly accurate—for several months of the year, the lake water turns an unnaturally vivid blue. The best part is that nobody has the foggiest idea why. A couple of signboards had embarrassed-sounding pseudo-explanations about the light absorbing non-blue wavelengths, but they were blatantly made up by some poor work experience kid on the spot. The lake remains a joyous mystery. Lookit all that blue!
29 November 2010, 589km to Melbourne:
Thus: 589 kilometres of ensconced in a little glass metal box of driving behind a truck with the numberplate 1203SWE or long open highway through the driest trees which I have ever seen. Thus, changing the station left to right to skip over the jazz, worst luck, to tree skeletons clutching at the sky like their cold fingers could rip away little points of its flesh for succour in their drought.
Oh, yes, the radio. Radio driving through—from South Australia, across the border into Victoria—was fantastic. The mainstream stations gave it a pretty good stab, playing us an insanity-inducingly catchy song called “Queensland” by Evil Eddie, which I recommend you Google if you really feel like saying “Quee-ee-ee-ee-ee-ee-ee-eeeeeensland” for absolutely no reason whatsoever every time you have a spare moment for the next two weeks. But the little outback regional stations took the biscuit; from the lady playing the wrong track, then exultantly squawking that “someone made a boo-boo!” by mislabelling her CDs, to the best of them all, a sweet old man doing his best to maintain Portland Community Radio despite being barely able to read or, for that matter, talk coherently. His long lists of community announcements were read with the fixated slowness of someone who doesn’t quite trust the paper and is determined not to let it get away with anything, and his more fluent improvised speech was, for the most part, genuinely indecipherable. We loved him.
Warrnambooll was our stop for the night, and my absolute gem of a Dorling Kindersley guidebook (cheers Farah!) mentioned that Tower Hill Game Reserve, just before it, was best when visited at dusk. Well, whaddaya know, it was coming up for dusk, and we happened to be driving right past…
…ZOMG. Tower Hill Game Reserve may well just be the best place in the long history of places which are places, and THAT IS A VERY LOT OF GOD DAMNABLE PLACES, CHILDREN. I talked about glimpsing an emu as a privilege. This place was privilege compounded, multiplied, ZOMGerised beyond all recognition. Giant grey kangaroos regarded us indolently from the side of the track, little wallabies hopped away. Two emus browsed their way across a field in the distance. One tree contained no less than five koala bears, one of them a tiny baby clinging to its mothers back (two others having loud and violent sex, but the less said about that the better). And there was a freaking echidna.
Words cannot describe my sheer glee.
We finished the day in Warrnambooll, or however it’s spelt. The cold from the night before had dissuaded my companions from another night in the automobile, and so we drove around checking out motel prices for a bit. Then I remembered good ol’ Dorling (and Kindersley), and looked up the Victoria tourist board number. One phone call later, and we had directions to what turned out to be the BEST BACKPACKERS HOSTEL IN THE WORLD (that I have been to). They even had free milk to go with the free tea and coffee, something every other hostel in the world neglects. We started to cook up some instant noodles in the kitchen, where someone had left a huge heap of gorgeous-smelling steak to sizzle. The steak sizzlers, an Austrian couple, came in to check on its progress, and I complimented them on their cookery. They laughed, said it was just the leftovers from their evening meal, they didn’t really know what to do with it, and would we like some?
Well, it would have been rude to say no.
The third and final day of our road trip was the main attraction: the Great Ocean Road itself. Still feeling happily steaked-up (and still muttering Quee-ee-ee- absently every few minutes), we embarked.
The Ocean Road was…well…Great. It was gorgeous, dramatic rock formations carved out of the soft rock by the might of the Southern Ocean. It’s really better represented by photographs than by me attempting any purple prose, though. So here you go, a clutch of oh-my-word-that’s-lovely pictures of the kind of astonishing views to which you were treated pretty much any time you felt like pulling the car off the road and wandering over to the right. And this was all in a morning’s viewing; by mid-afternoon, we had pulled into a very different kind of gorgeous, the magnificent city of Melbourne. But that’s a very different story. Tomorrow’s story, in fact.
…and just for good measure:
December 1st, 2010. Backseat of the car, Great Ocean Road, VIC:
10.34 AM. Content.