If you go to Victoria, you must do the Great Ocean Road is what they say. So that’s what we did, whilst we still had the van. We had driven for two days straight from Sydney to Victoria with nothing other than boring highway to look at, sleeping behind a grotty petrol station, so we were excited about the prospect of something a bit more touristy.
We set apart three full days until we had to return the campervan in Melbourne to complete the drive there and back. Beginning in the surfer town of Torquay, and meandering through several other ‘British’ places (Anglesea, Wye River and even Streatham), until it reaches the twee-sounding Port Fairy 285km west, the Great Ocean Road is renowned as one of the world’s most scenic drives.
We’d even been told that this is where we would finally see some wildlife, which had managed to evade us for the entirety of our 2000 miles of our journey so far; we’d not even seen one measly kangaroo, apart from a couple sadly squished at the side of the road.
Torquay is a surf town, but it wasn’t anywhere near as pretty as its Devon namesake. It had all the big surf shops, and is in fact the home of iconic Aussie brand Rip Curl. However, we were just there for the night and didn’t really need any extra rash vests or distressed denim shorts. We pitched up at the terrifyingly named Danger Point, a car park on a headland. We knew we weren’t meant to park there, but with around 5 other campers there, we convinced ourselves that there was safety in numbers. Rising at around 6, we drove right up to the highest point of the car park and witnessed a beautiful sunrise across the Southern Ocean. It was then a warden moved us on, but at least we’d caught the sunrise and had a decent night’s sleep.
Our first stop along the Great Ocean Road was the GOR Chocolaterie. We were going to avoid it, as most attractions in Aus are expensive, and the country isn’t exactly renowned for its chocolate products in the UK. However, we thought we’d do a recce by means of a swift tour of the car park. The chocolaterie was in fact simply a small chocolate factory with a large shop and cafe attached. It wasn’t quite Wonka standard, but the three gargantuan piles of sample chocolate buttons complete with weighty silver spoons for you to help yourself with waiting for us at the entrance made us realise it had certainly been worth stopping. In the shop, browsing the metre-long chocolate bars and giant Easter animals kept us entertained for a while, whilst watching the Oompa-Loompah equivalents slaving away over their cocoa creations behind a glass screen. The cafe’s liquid chocolate which came with the desserts was so good that in the spirit of a dumpster diving hippy, Dan actually relieved an uncleared table of one pot which hadn’t been touched by its purchaser – an absolute crime in our eyes (them leaving it, not his nabbing it).
On we went, all the time in awe of the dramatic red-cliffed coastline visible on our left. We stopped frequently – Bells Beach and Point Addis, Split Point Lighthouse (the one from Round The Twist!), and Lorne were all places we visited the first day. We spent the night at a free campsite, and saw our first koalas there, who were fairly non-plussed at our open-mouthed adoration, and simply continued to hug their respective branches almost sloth-like.
The Great Ocean Road also brought us sightings of kangaroos and an echidna, which we couldn’t believe we hadn’t seen yet, yet all these animals were so familiar from telly and books that we felt we had seen hundreds in our time. In Apollo Bay we sampled Vegemite ice-cream (a bit like salted caramel, but with a nasty after-taste), but boringly plumped for vanilla and chocolate flavours.
The final destination of ours before we turned back towards Melbourne was the Twelve Apostles – sea stacks to you and me. Despite the name remaining, there are actually only eight stacks left. We were lucky to get there before dark on a Saturday evening, and expected it to be devoid of tourists. Yet this was the most touristy place we experienced in Australia. Hundreds and hundreds of mainly Chinese tourists packed the walkways to the apostles, selfie sticks clashing in the air. At the final platform, with the best view of the stacks, the situation was laughable. Nobody could move for the people around them, and everyone’s selfie had at least three other strangers in it. We abandoned all hope of a good photo, and ended up just taking a couple of pictures of the tourists themselves.
Back we went to Melbourne then the next day, and said a fond farewell to the campervan we had had a love-hate relationship with over the previous five weeks.
Melbourne accommodation is pricey, and arriving in a squalid hostel in St Kilda (the backpacker-y hipster bit of the city, right by the ocean), was quite a shock, after having our own space, kitchen and double bed for a while. I’m not sure if it was my naivety or that the hostel really was that scummy, but I was truly shocked by the state room we were expected to sleep in. The Liverpudlian girls already there, who spent every waking hour lying on their beds on Facebook, were unfriendly to the point of being actively rude, and there were people’s belongings (odd socks, dirty bras, broken eye pencils) in every nook and cranny. We fitted ourselves in as small as space as possible and told ourselves ‘it’s only three nights’.
Melbourne itself is a fantastic city. The first full day we were there we were taken out to the beautiful Yarra Valley by my lovely cousin who lives in Melbourne, to do some wine tasting. The day was really fun, and as my cousin was kind enough to drive we didn’t have to worry about sampling as many wines as we liked! We visited several wineries, all of which have a small charge for the tasting, which you get back if you buy a bottle. The weather turned a little stormy (it was much cooler in Victoria than the east coast), and so we headed back in apocalyptic rain. Back at his house we met his wife and two adorable kids who we had never had a chance to meet before, and had a lovely evening eating pizza and drinking yet more wine.
After a long six weeks on the road, we didn’t have much energy left for the last couple of days we were in Melbourne, (yes, get the tiny violin out) but we mustered up the strength to do a free walking tour of the city the next day; something we have resolved to do wherever we can since the Sydney one. We then spent some time on Acland Street in St Kilda – the main strip full of bars, bakeries and book shops. We also visited the botanic gardens – as mentioned before seem to be a legal requirement of every settlement in Australia.
Australia was a land of many many firsts for me and for Dan. The first time being so far away from home. The first time I have spent longer than three weeks in a country other than the UK. The first time renting a campervan. The first time barbecuing on free outdoor gas cookers , and the first time seeing people pitching tents on the roof a car (apparently quite normal here). Leaving Australia behind to head to Auckalnd didn’t feel sad –it felt exactly right, as if we had spent the perfect amount of time there, this time. Of course Australia is so vast and so diverse in flora, fauna and people, that you could never hope to conquer this continent-sized country in six weeks, and we didn’t for a second think we had. But we had made a dent. Will we ever go back to Australia? Honestly, probably not. Even though there is so much to see, it’s a big old journey there from the UK, and the rest of the world is calling. However, that isn’t to say it isn’t a fascinating country, very liveable, very modern, mostly very safe-feeling. You get the feeling the government prioritises investment in the day-to-day comfort of its citizens and visitors in the services and facilities it provides. I know that may sound trite, and is possibly contentious to some Aussies, but as a tourist we felt pretty well looked–after, even if we lived in fear of the law every time we slept on the side of the road. We could definitely see the attraction of moving to Australia – the quality of life and the weather are all massive pulls for Europeans. But not quite strong enough pulls for us.