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.

Melbourne – Exploring Australia’s Most Liveable City

Melbourne was voted most liveable city by the Economist Intelligence Unit for seven years in a row, a record breaking length (until it recently lost out to Vienna) and out of everyone I had spoken to about Melbourne I had only found two people who weren’t too keen. It was why we chose Melbourne as our starting point, to suss it out as a potential place to live later in the trip. Yet a week into arriving in this magnificent city and we hadn’t seen anything more interesting than the VICSRoad office, the bank and our caravan park. With life admin squared away we decided it was high time we checked out what Melbourne had to offer.

Melbourne Sea Life Centre

Just down the road from our hostel (also a short walk from Flinder’s street Station) is Melbourne Sea Life Centre, so after passing it so many times we decided to kill an afternoon while waiting for van repairs to take a look around. It was fun to check out, especially when trying to spot and name the fish we had seen on recent dives, but it was definitely more of a family activity. With the ticket price at per person $42 (or $32.50 if you have student discount) it probably isn’t worth it for a backpacker on a budget. That being said I did enjoy the talk by the big tank which features several types of shark, giant rays and a massive grouper called Mr G. When they first bought Mr G to the aquarium they decided to make sure he was well fed so that when he was introduced into his new tank he wouldn’t eat any of the other fish. They stuffed him full of 12kg of fish and figured that was more than enough. Oh no. Not for Mr G! He had been in the tank only a short while before he swam up to one of the sharks, almost the same size as him, and swallowed him whole. Yep. A grouper ate a shark whole. I never thought I would be more scared of a grouper than a shark! Apparently if you had blinked you missed it, his huge mouth opened and just gulped the shark whole. As unbelievable as it sounds, watching Mr G contentedly swimming around his tank, huge mouth gaping, it actually wasn’t too hard to believe.

Melbourne Zoo

I love a good zoo! I know a lot of people question the ethics of zoos but I believe as long as you are selective about going to legit zoos with a good reputation and outstanding conservation efforts, you can support something worthwhile. Melbourne Zoo was super easy to get to with tram, bus and train routes that stop directly outside the zoo. It’s a reasonable size too that if you want to see the whole park you can fi it into a full day without feeling rushed. The enclosures are broken down into groups and paths lead you on loops around each section. There are plenty of eating options but like most zoos it is all overpriced so best to bring a picnic. The only downside was the animal talks were quite short, less than ten minute run downs on the animals main attributes and background. It was one of my favourite things to do in Melbourne because it is always a joy to me to watch animals just being animals.

Free Walking Tour

After an incredible free walking tour in Berlin that set the bar high, we always keep a lookout for free walking tours wherever we travel. They are a great way to get a feel for a city and know your way around while getting an interesting history and side stories about the place. At the end you tip what you feel the tour was worth, or what your budget will allow. We took this tour with walkingtours101 which we heard about through the YHA hostel as they do pick ups there. He told us many interesting facts about the city, including that it was originally designed without any town squares as they didn’t want places where people could gather. Our guide explained the rebellion against the gold mining licences at the Eureka stockade and how the Eureka tower represents this with the red representing the blood shed, the blue the flag they flew and of course the gold top for the gold. Another interesting fact is that the city was originally called Batmania after one of the founding fathers called John Batman. Personally I think they should have kept the name, imagine telling people you were just off to Batmania for the weekend! The highlight for me was ending. At the Melbourne gaol where Ned Kelly was hung. Our guide told us the story of Ned Kelly’s final showdown and it sounded epic and made me interested to know more.

Secret bars – Berlin’s Bar

There are loads of secret bars in Melbourne. They have adopted the prohibition style without ever having had a prohibition in Australia. I wanted to check out a few more than just Berlin Bar but being a bit far out from the city centre this was the only one we made it to. It is above a bar called House of Maximon, which holds a free comedy night (again tip what you like) every Wednesday night. The bar is designed with one half like east Berlin and the other half like West Berlin, though we heard that strangely most people choose to sit by Stalin’s portrait in West Berlin than to enjoy the glam of the East Berlin decor.

Laneways

As part of our walking tour we passed through Hosier Lane, well known for its ever-changing street art. We were recommended to go more than once as you’ll see something different every time; this was definitely true as some of the art had already changed only a few days later when we passed through again. Most of the best stuff in Melbourne happens down these laneways, there are quirky shops, cute cafes and hidden gems of restaurants waiting to be found. We also met a friend for drinks at Chuckles Park Bar, right near Flinders Street, that turned out not to be down an alleyway but the bar was the alleyway itself! Heaters gave the place a warming glow, lanterns hung above us and the little shed at the end served up cocktails, wines and beers. Perfect place to spend an evening after a day exploring the city’s backstreets.

Immigration Museum

We walked past this museum over and over again and what caught my eye was the exhibition on tattoos in different cultures that sounded interesting. On a rainy day we decided it was a good time to mooch about the museum. Students get in for free, otherwise an adult ticket is $15, and it is worth checking out. The exhibitions are detailed and thought provoking. I’ll admit I found the tattoo exhibition the most interesting but it was a great rainy day activity.

St Kilda

I had heard lots of good things about St Kilda – basically if you like cafes, good food and markets this is the place to go. We went on the weekend and there were definitely Sunday vibes in the air. Everyone was eating outside in the sun and it reminded of pub lunches back home. The other great thing about Sunday is the St Kilda Esplanade Market that runs every Sunday and sells all sorts of trinkets, home-made soaps and tasty oils, spices and other foods with plenty of tasters on hand. Another must do is to try one of the cake shops in St Kilda. Europa has windows lined with chunky cheesecakes, thick wedges of cakes and fruity tarts – just about every treat you could want! We grabbed a chocolate cheesecake for me and a lemon meringue pie for Joey and headed to the Botanical Gardens for a mini picnic.

As the sun started to set we headed to the Pier for the other reason we had come to St Kilda. Every evening the little Fairy Penguins that call the rocks surrounding the pier home come back to their nests to fee their young and rest up before heading back out into the bay at dawn to fish again. Get there early as it gets very crowded but once the penguins start coming in people tend to disperse and stay a little later to see many of these cute penguins up close. The little penguins are kept an eye on by volunteers from Earthcare St Kilda, a non-profit organisation that work to protect the penguins and their home, making sure a safe distance is kept and their habitat isn’t disturbed.

I could see why Melbourne had won the award for most liveable city. I imagined myself living here, heading to the markets for fresh veg, hopping on the free inner city trams, spending lazy weekends in St Kilda and discovering all the secret bars with friends of an evening. At the same time the cold and the rain was off-putting and with so much more to explore of this vast country we were excited to move on. It was the perfect start place and I look forward to visiting again in the summer, whether we will settle here or not is still a long way off, for now we have some road tripping to do.