Three Years on the Road
Brett Davis

36. Melbourne and the Great Ocean Road

While we were in Taggerty, Karen had called the parents of an old friend of hers to see if they would put us up for a night. Peter and Ella had once owned a house on the battle-axe block at the rear of Karen's parent's house in Sydney. Karen and their daughter Pip had been school friends from way back, and Karen's family had stayed in contact with Pip's family during the years since they had moved to Melbourne. Peter and Ella were happy to have us stay for as long as we liked. What a great attitude!

On our first day at Mount Waverley, Karen and I took a train into the city and played tourist. We took the elevator up the fifty five floors of the Rialto Tower to the observation deck for an overview and photos of Melbourne. Then it was back down to street level for a self-guided historic walk, followed by a free tram ride around the central business district which included an excellent commentary by the conductor. Melbourne now done, we trained back to Mount Waverley. Peter and Ella had invited Pip and her husband Mark to dinner, and a good night was had by all as everyone's history was brought up to date.

We veged the following day, checking out a local park between showers and adding the musk lorikeet to our ever-growing birdlist. Peter loaned us his car for a trip to the cinema where Babe charmed the socks off us, and we also took in Jell's Park, where the brown thornbill soon joined the birdlist as well. After a relaxing evening of television and an early night, Karen and I were ready to move on.

Me and Karen ready to leave Mount Waverley

Another phone call to another friend secured us another night's accommodation on the other side of Melbourne. We left Mount Waverley at midday after waiting for some morning rain to clear. Surprisingly for Melbourne, the rain did clear. We followed a bike path all the way into the centre of the city, skirting Gardiner's Creek, the south-eastern freeway, the railway line and the Yarra River. With the city skyline laid out before us across the river, we lunched in a park near the Princes Bridge before venturing into the city past the Flinders Street Station, then west and south under the infamous Westgate Bridge to reach Williamstown on Port Phillip Bay. Another couple of birds joined the list - the chestnut teal and the Pacific gull - before we arrived at our destination in Brooklyn.

Karen lunching by the Yarra

Karen and I, and Karen's mother Barbara, had trekked the Annapurna circuit in Nepal in 1993. Our party had included three other Australians - two guys, and a girl named Michelle from Melbourne. During the trek Michelle became involved with our Nepalese cook, Manbahadur, and after returning to Australia had begun making arrangements for him to come out to Australia. They were now living together in her parent's house in Brooklyn, and had happily agreed to have us stay for a night. Over a wonderful dinner of Indian and Nepalese food - cooked of course by Manbahadur - we reminisced about the three and a half week trek we had shared two years before.

The following day was an uninspiring slog down the Princes Freeway to Geelong and twenty odd kilometres more to the seaside resort town of Torquay. Here, the council caravan park wanted to charge us seventeen dollars for a tent site. Karen almost had a heart attack when she heard this exorbitant price - it had not been too long ago when she had baulked at twelve! Although seventeen dollars did not leave too much left of our thirty dollars a day budget, after a ride of almost one hundred kilometres the last thing I wanted to do was shop around for cheap accommodation. Karen however, was insistent, and she's the boss, so we consulted our travel information and headed for another caravan park across town.

Our search for cheaper accommodation would prove to be an exercise in false economy. I have never had much luck with the Great Ocean Road. Hugging Victoria's south-western coast, it is one of the most scenic stretches of road in the whole of Australia, and a Mecca to cyclists and motorcyclists. In my youth, twenty something years ago, I had motorcycled from Sydney to Adelaide to visit friends, then travelled back to Sydney via the coast road to Melbourne, and the Hume Highway back to Sydney. Along the way I had stopped overnight in Warrnambool where I had loaded a new roll of film into my camera in preparation for the next day's scenic splendour along the Great Ocean Road. The weather the next day was perfect, and I had snapped photo after glorious photo in bright, perfect sunshine. By the time I had reached Melbourne that night, the whole roll of thirty six shots had been exhausted. I then started to rewind the film, only to discover after a single turn that it was already fully re-wound. I had not loaded it correctly in Warrnambool, and none of the wonderful pictures I had taken had ever seen the light of day. What a disaster!

Undaunted, I retraced my route the next day and took the same photographs all over again. Although the curves on the Great Ocean Road were just as much fun the second time around, and the scenery had remained the same, the weather had changed to a gloomy overcast which had cast a pall over the resultant images. Perhaps "disaster" is too strong a term for this incident, but I'm sure most photographers who have suffered similar losses would not dispute my use of the word.

When Karen and I had arrived in Torquay the weather reports for the next couple of days were predicting fine and sunny conditions. I was looking forward to taking the kind of pictures I had been so cruelly denied over twenty years before. Unfortunately, the unseen god of the Great Ocean Road had not forgotten me, and had conspired with fate to put an end to my photographic hopes once again. On our search for a cheaper caravan park, and right at the start of the Great Ocean Road, my camera fell from its perfectly secure position under a flap of one of my rear panniers, and bounced along the road.

My camera is not a twenty dollar point and shoot piece of plastic built around an equally plastic lens. It is a Canon 35mm SLR with a 28-200mm macro zoom lens and a replacement value of a couple of thousand dollars. Perhaps if it had been less solid and more plastic it would have made less impact on the surface of the road. I jumped off Elle, dropped her unceremoniously in the gutter, and raced back to retrieve my camera from the middle of the road before a car could come along to finish off the demolition job. A brisk inspection revealed a combination of good and bad news. The good news was that none of the glass in the lens was broken. All the internal lenses seemed to be intact and the zoom mechanism appeared to still be functioning normally. The bad news concerned the mount, the part of the lens which attaches to the camera body. It had suffered extensive damage, and would need some major repair work before the combination would be useable again. The camera body itself had suffered a few scrapes and scratches, and a small crack in a piece of metal trim on the camera back, but while it looked a bit the worse for wear, it would still work okay. I would send the lens back to Sydney when we reached Warrnambool, and get it back again when we reached Adelaide, along with a wonderfully tiny repair bill of only eighty dollars. A bargain!

There is an old saying which states that those who do not heed the lessons of history will be destined to repeat it. Having suffered the loss of photographic opportunities before, I had learned from previous mistakes. Karen and I not only carried a spare camera, we carried two spare cameras! Karen had a good Olympus 35mm snap camera with built-in flash which we used primarily at night, and I also had a very cheap camera which produced long, thin panoramic images. Being pretty good photographers, Karen's and my photos of the Great Ocean Road would turn out okay, but who knows what magic I might have created if I had been in possession of my trusty SLR?

After I had rescued my wounded camera, Karen and I rode to a more classy caravan park across town where we found the price was the same as the council park. Karen argued that if we had to pay so much money anyhow, we might as well get a motel room with the vouchers we still had left. We soon discovered that the price of a motel room was inflated too - ninety five dollars! - and the value of our remaining vouchers would not cover this amount. What was so special about Torquay that it could demand these prices? We settled on the best of the bad bunch and spent the night at the classy caravan park. To compensate for the expense of the site, Karen economised on dinner - a couple of apples each - and we got our money's worth out of the park by staying up for an extra hour past the television room curfew of 9pm. What devil's we were!

The weather lived up to its press, and the first day of our Great Ocean Road trip dawned bright and clear. We bade goodbye to the scores of Gang-Gang cockatoos at the caravan park in Torquay and headed out for the short but hilly ride to Bell's Beach, arguably the most famous surfing beach in Australia. Easter was less than two weeks away, and preparations for the annual surfing contest were well advanced. Stands, which would be full of people watching the world's best surfers within a fortnight, stood high along the clifftops at various stages of construction. We climbed up onto an almost completed section, and had a snack of chocolate-coated peanuts while we watched a few of the local surfers go through their paces on the water.

The ride to Bell's had involved a slight detour from the Great Ocean Road, but we returned to it for the brief jaunt to Anglesea. At a beachside park we claimed a picnic table and ate an early lunch. During our meal we spoke to a lone female Canadian cyclist on her way to Adelaide and then somehow to Cairns, and also to an English couple, Clara and Morris. They lived in Nambour in Queensland but had arranged a house-swap with another couple at Airey's Inlet, only a few kilometres to our south. After we had spoken with them for a while and explained the way we travelled, they invited us to spend the night at their adopted home. We accepted gladly, partly because it would be good to have company and conversation, and partly because the other accommodation in the area had been so expensive. The only parks which would prove to be more expensive during our entire trip were world famous and extremely remote, but who outside of Victoria has ever heard of Torquay, which is only an hour (by car) from Melbourne?

After lunch, Karen and I rode straight to the address we had been given. Our total distance for the day was a tiny thirty two kilometres, but the offer of a free night was impossible to ignore. Clara and Morris were still away on their day trip to Anglesea, so we stored the bikes around the back of the house, stuffed our valuables into our day packs, and went for an afternoon walk out to the lighthouse and around the hinterland of this pretty coastal retreat. During our walk, we spotted two new birds, the Singing Honeyeater and the Blue-winged Parrot. We returned to an occupied house at six in the evening, and enjoyed a cuppa with our hosts. Clara and Morris were lovely people, kind and generous, but they were also the two most boring people we would ever meet, and the conversation over dinner was excruciating. Despite this drawback, the hospitality of our hosts helped to overcome the mood caused by bouncing my camera the previous day. Life compensates like that sometimes. In fact, most of the time.

I rose at 2am to search for the Hiyakutake Comet, supposedly in the north-eastern sky. The seeing was not great - the comet showed no tail and appeared as a small fuzzy patch of light in the darkness. The next morning we left Clara and Morris and ventured forth on a day when the scenery along the Great Ocean Road was at its best. We stopped at every lookout, took our share of photos and proceeded on to the next lookout, and the next, to do the same. Karen had never been to this part of Australia before and had been looking forward to this moment for a long time. The Great Ocean Road had been one of those twenty four places in Australia we most wanted to visit.

We stopped for morning tea at Lorne, another beautiful little town. Our tourist information mentioned an attraction called Teddy's Lookout, and although Karen wanted to give it a miss, I insisted we go. As with most lookouts, Teddy's is on top of a hill, and the access roads we took to get there are steep. For touring cyclists they are impossibly steep. Not wanting to leave our bikes, we first tried riding, and then walking and pushing the bikes up the hill. Even that was hopeless. Halfway up, we hid our bikes behind some foliage and climbed up to the lookout, all the while discussing whether we were doing the right thing.

"It's too steep. Let's go back."
"Look Karen. You know we will not be visiting here for a long time, maybe never. If we don't do it now, we may never do it."
"It'll probably be no good anyhow."
"Maybe. Maybe not. But if don't go, we won't find out. So let's just do it, okay?"

The view from Teddy's lookout was worthwhile - even Karen in her mood was forced to agree. We walked back to our bikes, but could not enjoy the downhill back to the highway. It was so steep we had to keep our brakes locked on, to prevent our speed becoming unstoppable. Once back on the highway we made better time, quickly reaching an almost hidden picnic spot about twenty kilometres down the road where we stopped for lunch. After another short twenty kilometre afternoon session, we reached Apollo Bay, where we set up in a caravan park on the outskirts of town. We then dressed in our finery - which means jeans - and walked into town for a dinner of fish and chips, and a cheap bottle of spumante at a picnic table overlooking the bay. Heaven! Apart from taking the direct route up to Teddy's Lookout when there must have been an easier alternative route, the day had been close to perfect. Great weather, great views, great road, but with this day having been so good, we knew that a rotten day (or two) was just around the corner.

We awoke the next morning to be greeted by a flat tyre. Karen attended to some washing while I fixed the puncture, a leisurely job as we waited for the clothes to dry. At eleven we rode back into Apollo Bay for some shopping and banking, and yet another puncture repair after Karen picked up a tack. We finally got out of town at around half past twelve. A few kilometres up the road my front tyre was flat! I pumped it up and rode on, trying to reach a spot called "Mate's Rest" where we had planned to have lunch, but I had to pump and ride about four times before we got there.

The Chiltern blow-out had started me wondering whether our Mister Tuffy tyre liners were an effective means of puncture protection. Each liner is a long strip of puncture resistant material which fits between the tyre and the tube, with its ends overlapping slightly. Although it was possible that the tyre liners were effective, it seemed to me that we had been receiving more than our fair share of punctures, and some of them had been decidedly suspicious. Many of the slow leaks we had experienced had proven to be very small holes on what appeared to be seems in the tubes. It was not until we flatted three times in twenty fours hours at Apollo Bay that I realised the Mister Tuffy tyre liners were actually causing some of our punctures! The "seams" were actually impressions of the edges of the tyre liners, and most of the holes had developed in the area where the two ends overlapped. I recalled a conversation I had had with Stephen, a friend of mine who had cycled around Europe with his wife, and vaguely remembered him mentioning rumours that the Mister Tuffy tyre liners could cause problems. I covered the offending ends of the liners with electrical tape in an effort to eliminate this problem.

When we finally departed Apollo Bay we headed for a campsite at the Aire River in the Otways National Park. After turning off the road, we climbed a couple of large hills before the sealed surface disappeared, and then followed a truly horrible gravel road down to the river. Actually, it was not really gravel. It was fist-sized pieces of sharply angled rock embedded into a clay base and protruding upwards, their hard and sharp edges waiting to catch any unwary cyclists. Because the other end of this loop road might have been impassable, there was a possibility that we would have to return along this track to get back to the Great Ocean Road, but after travelling over it once, there was no way Karen and I would travel it again. However bad the road out might prove to be, surely it would be better than the road in. It wasn't, but we would not find that out until the next day.

Aire River has two camping areas, east and west. The east had a few caravanners and four wheel drive vehicles scattered around it, but the campsite around one group of campers contained a few too many discarded beer bottles for our liking so we opted for the west. We crossed the river to a large, flat, grassy camping area which looked for all the world like a huge cow paddock. It had been a difficult day of only thirty two kilometres. We put up our tent near an empty caravan with an attached annex, far enough away to provide privacy if its owners returned, but close enough for strangers to assume we were part of a larger group. After bathing in the river, we watched the clouds build up and the mists descend, when we were joined by about fifty annoyed cows, upset with us for occupying their paddock.

The following morning dawned overcast and misty. Flying ants were dotted thickly over the outside of our very wet tent. After a damp, two hour walk to the escarpment which overlooks the river outlet we brushed off the ants and packed up the still wet tent and proceeded along the short cut track towards the Great Ocean Road. The map showed the distance as five kilometres, a saving of nine kilometres which would also allow us to avoid the shocking road we had ridden the afternoon before. The map also showed that the short cut was called "The Sand Road." It was an apt description.

Five kilometres and one hour later, after a good deal of pushing our bikes through frequent drifts of sand which covered the road and made riding impossible, we reached the sealed surface again. There followed sixteen kilometres of humid, uphill slog! Laver's Hill is the highest point on the Great Ocean Road, and we lunched atop it, soon losing the body heat generated by the climb to the cold of the day. We donned our rain jackets for warmth.

The morning had been a real bugger, but the cycling after lunch was superb. Steep downhills are bad because all the hard-won altitude gain is rapidly wasted, but the road on the west side of Laver's Hill was perfect. It dropped gradually in a series of long steps, making for fast and extended coasting all the way down to the Gellibrand River. A short, steep uphill was then followed by another excellent downhill, along a ridge on the coastal range which took us down to Princetown, a town consisting of a couple of shops and a caravan park surrounded by grassy plains.

The autumn twilight disappeared by eight, swallowed by another heavy mist pushed in from the ocean by a rising wind. We adjourned to the caravan park laundry, our usual haunt in such circumstances, where we were warmed by a few cups of tea. I wrote up the diary for the day, and we struggled with a cryptic crossword as well.

After light rain overnight, we rode out the next morning to an overcast and misty day. We would see the best and most famous sights of the Great Ocean Road during this marathon forty two kilometre day - a short distance that would take ages because of the number of times we stopped to view the remarkable coastal scenery of the Port Campbell National Park. Our first stop was the lookout over the Twelve Apostles, a series of isolated rocky outcrops which have been eroded away from the coastal cliffs. Only half of the Apostles are visible from any lookout, even in perfect conditions, but bus-loads of Japanese tourists and I had to settle for some mood-and-mist photographs of those Apostles we could see. By Loch Ard Gorge, not far up the road, the day had begun to clear. We spent a couple of hours on the various lookouts and walking tracks at the gorge, and were rewarded not only with some spectacular scenery, but with a sighting of the rare Rufous Bristlebird as well - in the carpark.

Some of the Twelve Apostles

The sun was breaking through the cloud by lunchtime. At a picnic table in a park at Port Campbell, Karen and I spread the tent out to dry while watching a local lobster boat crew bagging the morning's catch. After lunch, in bright sunshine, we visited more national park lookouts at the Grotto and at London Bridge. When I had passed this way two decades before, the latter had been intact, but in 1990 one of the two spans of London Bridge had fallen down, leaving two people stranded until after dark on the remaining arch, now isolated from the mainland. Whoever named the feature London Bridge should have known that they were asking for trouble!

London Bridge

We rolled into Peterborough late in the afternoon, set up our dry tent at an excellent, new caravan park, and bought and then returned a flat bottle of cheap spumante. It had been the last bottle in town, so we were forced to indulge in a more expensive bottle of champagne. It cost us the princely sum of five dollars and sixty five cents - more than we usually paid for a bottle of wine - but it was worth it. The day had been excellent, the scenery justifiably world famous, and to top it off, we had seen three new birds!

Our last day on the Great Ocean Road would see us ride the final sixty kilometres to Warrnambool. The fine weather which had begun the previous day continued to improve. After a couple of side-trips to Massacre Bay and the Bay of Islands, we again detoured, this time to Childer's Cove, where we stayed for a three hour lunch which included a swim in the icy Bass Straight waters. The day had warmed up to a heady thirty degrees, so the chill of the swim proved to be no hardship. Westerly headwinds hit us for the rest of the afternoon, and it was a couple of weary cyclists who reached their destination that night. The caravan park we chose had the best facilities of any we had ever encountered. We spent the night, under cover in the campers kitchen, with tables, chairs, light, television (!) and free gas stoves. Ah, the luxuries of civilisation!

The Great Ocean Road had lived up to Karen's expectations. It ranks high on our list of favourite places in Australia. Melbourne cyclists are lucky to have such scenic wonders so close to their doorsteps, and those who haven't done the ride should think seriously about it.

But a word of warning - watch out for your camera!

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