The Outback Roadtrip – German Food, Kangaroos and Underground Homes

The road trip had only just begun but already our van was running into problems. It was jerky and struggling to get up hills or change gears and though it had started along the Great Ocean Road, by The Grampians we had to admit we couldn’t go any further until it was sorted. We called the mechanic who had done our roadworthy in Melbourne and though he tried to diagnose the issue over the phone there wasn’t much he could do. He knew a guy in Adelaide who could take a look at it for us if we could get it there but we didn’t want to risk the long drive. We asked around for a local mechanic and rocked up first thing to find out what was going on. Within minutes he knew it was an ignition misfire and luckily said he believed we could nurse it to Adelaide and get it fixed there as he was booked solid that day and we wanted to avoid staying somewhere so out of the way.

With the road trip at least temporarily back on we set off straight away but before Adelaide we had one more stop to make. Back in Melbourne we had spoken to two different people who recommended a German town outside of Adelaide called Hahndorf. They said there was good food and cute shops and it sounded like our kind of place.

We arrived late in the afternoon and once we were all set up at the campsite we ventured out into the rain to find food. There are a few German pubs in Hahndorf all of which do these huge sharing platters of German food, which as soon as I read about I knew we had to try. The Hahndorf Inn had the best reviews and straight away we had great service, being offered to sit by the fire and getting wine recommendations. The German Platter was piled high with pork shoulder, the meat falling off the bone, pork chops, sauerkraut and a variety of German sausage plus two pretzels. It was all a bit too much even for us! Tasty, but very stodgy too. No room for dessert!

The next day we got to explore the town a bit more, ducking into shops selling handmade soaps, candles and honey. We admired the expensive imported wooden trinkets made in Germany and realised it would be cheaper for us to fly to Germany to buy something there than to buy here. We also tried out one of the other German restaurants called Haus, this one had more of a mix of cuisine on the menu so was a great place for breakfast, serving some of the most delicious pancakes and poached eggs we had so far on the trip.

When we reached Adelaide it was too late to get the van looked at that day and we happened to have arrived on a weekend so we extended our stay and waited until Monday to get the van seen to. In the meantime it was a good opportunity to catch up with Ashlie, a friend of a friend who had started her working holiday visa a few months before us and happened to fly across from the East Coast to Adelaide in search of farm work. It was so nice to commiserate on finding work and share the ups and downs of travel. We got to chat to a few of the friends she had made in the hostel too and gain some travel tips from them and her. More than anything, I think for both of us, it was nice to have that little piece of familiarity from back home and I hoped our paths would cross again while in Australia.

Finally we managed to get the van looked at and the ignition misfire confirmed. As much as we love the van it has been a struggle and a cause for some low moments when our plans seem halted to get things fixed or paperwork needing to be ticked off. It had been a huge worry for us that if the repairs set us back financially it would change the course of our trip, or even lead us to have to give up the van entirely, or if not now then it could become a constant stop start on our journey and possibly even leave us stranded in a tricky situation if we broke down on the road. It is something we had accepted when we knew we wanted to buy a vehicle and road trip Australia but when the reality hits it can be a different story. Thankfully the costs were less than first quoted and it was all sorted in a day putting us back on track for the next leg of our journey.

Along the Great Ocean Road the drive times had been relatively short at 2 – 4 hours per day. Now we were heading into the outback those drive times would mostly be 6 – 8 hours long. Port Augusta was our first stop and this was mainly to break things up a little bit. It is definitely a hub for different road trips, whether you are heading north, south or west, it is a good jumping off point and quite a pretty place in its own way with a huge river cutting through it.

After resting up and enjoying the first evening of the trip so far that we were able to sit outside our van for a little while, it was an early start to Coober Pedy. Coober Pedy is an opal mining town whose residence have a unique way of living. Most of Coober Pedy’s homes are actually underground! This means that the houses stay cool in the hot sun and it makes expanding easy as you simply dig out another room whenever you need one. Even our campground was underground…well… sort of. We opted to stay at Riba’s Underground Campsite, which is just outside the town and offers people the chance to pitch up their tents underground for a campsite with a difference. Unfortunately we couldn’t park the van up underground so we had to live with the dust and the wind up top but we did join in with the mining tour the owner runs on site.

We gathered at the entrance with quite a big group of other guests at 7pm and were taken down into the cavern where various pieces of equipment were set up to demonstrate the method of opal mining in Coober Pedy. Our guide was a little odd, trying too hard to be funny at times and getting quite short with people (verging on rude) if anyone asked any questions as he clearly had his speeches and ways of explaining things that he didn’t want to be interrupted or thrown off course. It was $26 per person but meant we got 50% off one night stay but to be honest we saw better and cheaper mining tours around town so I wouldn’t necessarily be suckered in by this deal.

Still, it was interesting to learn how miners would follow certain veins in the rock to where the opal was most likely to be. Most of the mines were dug out by hand but slowly machinery began to be brought in and huge blowers would be used to suction out the debris creating the iconic mounds of dust and limestone that you’ll see scattered across the otherwise flat landscape as you arrive in Coober Pedy. If you are lucky you may even find some opal shrapnel by noodling (sieving through) these piles, something we saw several people doing while we were there.

The next day we visited Josephine’s Gallery and Kangeroo Sanctuary and met Judy, an incredibly knowledgeable woman both on aboriginal art and kangaroos. To begin with we had time to look around the gallery. There were some gorgeous art pieces but all too expensive for us frugal backpackers! Though we did treat ourselves to some smaller, cheaper prints of the original art. Once enough of a crowd had gathered we were taken out back to where the kangaroos were. They currently have three adults and many more joeys. We were handed some wasabi peas (apparently kangaroos like spicy food! They even eat the plants in the wild that have a spicier taste that other animals don’t eat) and all stuck our hands over the fence expectantly. But they were too lazy and remained where they were, collapsed in some interesting positions…

The little joey she brought out next was much more friendly. After having some milk Clyde clambered out of his pouch strapped to Judy and hopped around, exploring the little courtyard area, licking the wasabi peas (he was still to young to eat them but liked the flavour anyway) and sniffing at everything. He liked reaching up to give Judy a cuddle and let us stroke him too – he had the softest fur! Judy told us so many facts about kangaroos but one that stuck with me was that kangaroos actually use their hormones to choose the sex of their offspring right before birth. With most animals the sex is random or if it is affected by hormones it happens much earlier in the pregnancy but kangaroos can wait until the last moment to judge whether the ratio of male to females is right before the joey is born to keep things in balance. Pretty cool!

Although I could have had cuddles with little Clyde all day long, eventually we had to let him hop back into his pouch for a nap and head out exploring. We stopped off at the Big Winch View point, which is no more exciting than the name describes but did gives us a Birdseye view of this strange town. Everywhere you look there are junk piles or sculptures made from abandoned cars and rusted metal. It seems almost like an abandoned post-apocalyptic landscape, which may be why it was chosen as a location to film the Mad Max films. To get a real sense of what is going on beneath ground it is worth checking out Faye’s Underground home.

It was only $10 per person to look around the house and $15 to see the mine as well. We were taken through each room and told more about underground living and about Faye and the two other women she lived with who helped build the house. Faye came to Coober Pedy in the 60’s and decided to start opal mining, she hand dug her house, which became known for parties, as was evidenced by the liquor cupboard there. As their mining company became more successful they even built an above ground pool, which was a major luxury seeing as they had to have the water driven up from Adelaide to fill it! But they were always welcoming guests and neighbours to make use of it. They sounded like pretty badass women.

Coober Pedy is probably one of the strangest places I’ve ever been and for that reason alone it is worth visiting, even if it isn’t somewhere you would want to linger. Our next stop was to be a big one though – Uluru. It has been a place I’ve always wanted to visit and I couldn’t wait to get there.

The Road Trip Begins

Finally, after much paperwork and repairs, the van was ready for us to hit the road. We had ended up spending a couple of weeks in Melbourne and we felt this was more than enough. We were ready to move on and put our road trip plans into action.

On a grey morning we did our final preparations and set off for The Great Ocean Road. We couldn’t have picked a more scenic way to begin our trip. The Great Ocean Road actually officially starts from Torquay, a surfing town just outside Melbourne, and hugs the coastline for 243km until it reaches Warrnambool. Along the way there are plenty of viewpoints to stop off at and towns to explore so I had planned that our first day of driving would be a short one. The drive itself is half the fun though. The road twisted and turned, always with the sea to our left, crashing against rocks or lapping at small beaches. We passed coastal towns and stopped along the way at Point Addis, one of the many scenic viewpoints along the route. It felt so good to know that we were finally on our way.

Even though I had planned a short driving day after a late start and stopping for a few photo opportunities it was getting dark by the time we turned off The Great Ocean road and headed inland to find our first camp spot for the night. I had picked a free site in the Otway National Park called Beauchamp Falls. I pictured us arriving early, in time for a quick hike down the falls and then setting up camp. As is easy to do in Australia I had misjudged distance and we found ourselves driving through the dark up a long and winding road. Either side of us was thick forest and the signal was patchy and then gone entirely. We only passed one other vehicle, a mini bus of Asian Tourists, who stopped to ask the way back to Melbourne. We warned them it was a long drive and they would arrive in the city late and they warned us that they had turned back because the road was too narrow. But we had no choice but to carry on.

When we eventually pulled into the basic campsite it was pitch black. We used the headlights to scout the campground and found we couldn’t even park up on the grass as there were bollards in the way. There was no one else there and the deep dark forest surrounded us on every front. My imagination was running wild. Every bad horror movie was running through my head and looked suspiciously into the trees, half expecting to hear something or someone stirring. I tried to push these thoughts aside and started cooking dinner, making the van warm and cosy.

In the morning I emerged from the van into a tranquil forest glen. What had seemed dark and eery the night before was actually a gorgeous forest, with moss and vines growing over the trees that stretched endlessly to the sky and curly fungus growing on fallen logs. I stood in the middle of it all and took in the beautiful quiet, only the occasionally drip from the leaves around me and the twittering of birds nearby.

We were up nice and early and headed over to the nearby Otway Fly Treetop Adventure where you can either zip line through the trees or take a more sedate walk along the treetop walkway. Normally I’m always up for zip lining but to save a few bucks we opted for the walk instead. It was incredible to be right up in the canopy of these giant trees and there were signs with information about the local fauna that were really interesting. It is definitely worth a detour from the Great Ocean Road.

There was still plenty more to see along the next stretch of our journey and we headed out of Otway National Park and back to the coastline. There are several different rock formations along the Great Ocean Road, though the most famous and the one I was looking forward to the most was The Twelve Apostles. First we saw the Razorback, a long section of broken away cliff where the top has been worn razor thin by the elements. Then there is Loch Ard Gorge, which is named after a ship that wrecked there in 1878 as they were coming to the end of their three month journey from England to Melbourne. And finally The Grotto, an archway in the rock that frames a rock pool looking out to see, like a little private infinity pool. The Twelve Apostles is the main sight to see and it does perfectly capture what is so beautiful about the Great Ocean Road – a coastline stretching on forever, picturesque beaches and impressive rock formations. The Twelve Apostles are limestone stacks that have taken over 6000 years to form their shape and only eight remain after the other stacks collapsed into the ocean. But to me they were a symbol that the places I had seen pictures of, taken tips from guide books and brochures about and even described to others looking to book that trip, was now something I was getting to see and experience in real life. It brought home the fact that our long awaited road trip dreams were finally happening.

We veered off from The Great Ocean Road before it officially ended as our next stop was The Grampians National Park. It was another short drive day but again with all the stops in between we arrived as it was dark and bumped down a dirt track that led to our next free campsite. Luckily in this case there was another car on the road, a Juicy camper car we figured was also heading for the same campsite. We turned out to be correct and once we were parked up they came over to say hi. They were a lovely French couple spending six weeks exploring Australia and had already been in the national park for a couple of days so were able to give us tips on which hikes to do. This night didn’t feel quite so creepy as the last one and we were starting to find our feet with traveling in the van. Before settling in for the night we gazed up at spectacular starry sky, the Milky Way shimmering above us and loving every moment of being out in nature.

The next day we were off to explore it all by foot, starting our day of hiking with The Pinnacle, one of the most popular hikes in the Grampians. There are a few different options for walking it. You can start from Halls Gap, which is around 9.6km and takes around 5 hours going in a loop, there is the Sundial Carpark start point which is around 2.1km and 2 hours or from Wonderland Carpark which is similar distance and length but a slightly more challenging route. We started our walk from Sundial Carpark, mainly because we had one full day here and there were other hikes we wanted to fit in as well. The first natural marker we came across was The Grand Canyon,which isn’t quite as Grand as the one in the USA and made of grey stone instead of red (wish I could tell you the actual types instead of just the colours but that’s as far as my geology stretches). It is easy to think of Australia as being all like the outback, very much a desert landscape, but one of the things that has fascinated me about this country is just how different it can look from one area, one town, one state to another. In the Grampians, despite the different coloured rock, it could have been an American National Park we were hiking through – apart from the eucalyptus trees every so often – no koalas though unfortunately.

From the mini Grand Canyon we continued following the dusty path upwards, passing little nooks in the rock perfect for cooling off and tall sparse trees either side of us. Sometimes we followed the path and sometimes simple markers as we walked over rock. Eventually we reached Silent Street, an indication that we were nearing the top. This narrow path between a stone crevasse finished with a few steep stairs and only another ten minutes or less to the top. The Pinnacle itself is a rock jutting out (not unlike pride rock in the Lion King) over an incredible view o the National Park below. The views took your breath away but there was still more to see.

If I thought the view from The Pinnacle was amazing then I was even more blown away by the view from Baroka Lookout. For this we had to jump back in the van and head upwards on some very wiggly roads, even the temperature dropped further this high up. But it was worth it. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to see so far from a viewpoint before.

After Baroka Lookout we did another couple of shorter walks, one to The Balconies, an almost mini version of The Pinnacle but on a much flatter walk and overlooking a different side of the Grampians. The second to MacKenzie Falls Lookout. You can do a longer hike down to the falls themselves but we were feeling a bit tired at this point and opted to just look from afar from the shorter viewpoint walk instead. It turned out we made the right decision as after checking out the falls we turned to do a loop back to where we came from where a sudden movement to our right startled us both. We turned to see a wallaby hopping away into the brush. We got a good clear look at him as he tried to suss us out and then hopped into denser brush then we spotted a second but both were so well camouflaged (there is a wallaby in the first photo below as evidence of this – check out @ThereAndBackAgainJJ for a clearer video) we could have walked pass a hundred that day and not realised. We were so excited to see them up close and we got an extra treat back at the campsite when a cluster were grazing just outside our van at night and some were even nearby in the morning as we packed up for our next destination.

I would have loved to stay in The Grampians longer. There is so much to explore and many more hikes on offer, plus the campsite itself was so peaceful, but unfortunately up all the hilly roads our van had started making strange noises and we felt it was best to get it checked out in Adelaide where there were more accommodation options if we had to leave the van overnight to be fixed. As great as van life is this was a reality check to us that there are always possibilities of things going wrong and we crossed our fingers that we would make it to Adelaide safe and sound, that the van would be an easy fix and that this wouldn’t be the end of our road trip before it had really begun.