Month: March 2007

Adelaide, Australia: Best. Freebie. Ever.

We were out of Tim’s Place by about 10:30 on our last morning in Halls Gap. There was one more rock art shelter we wanted to visit a little north of town before we curved West towards Adelaide.

I can’t remember the name of the last shelter before you hit the highway, but the meaning of which as something to do with “white people”. I’m not sure if it was painted in response to the introduction of Aborigines to Europeans, or if it was some deeper spiritual meaning. But either way, it fits:

Adelaide was about 6 hours West of the Grampians, and our lunch stop was just before the Victoria-South Australia border in a town called … well, Bordertown.

While we picnicked beside a small stream near the highway, I made an offer to Steffen to share something driving responsibilities. I had made this offer many times before, during this trip across Australia as well as throughout Tasmania, but this was the first time he actually took me up on it.

After lunch, I somewhat nervously climbed into the driver’s seat, and kept muttering to myself, “left, left, left, left, for god’s sake, stay left!” Fortunately, the road to Adelaide is straight and flat, and my champion driving skills were never called upon.

A couple hours before we reached the city, Steffen pulled out his guidebook and started reviewing our accomodation options. They all sounded alike, except one amenity at the Adelaide Backpackers Inn stood out: every night, they served free apple pie and ice cream. I’ll repeat that, as I believe it bears repeating: every night, we would get free apple pie and ice cream.

Steffen made the call and we navigated our way through the city and to the hostel. I was still getting used to the wide girth of the stationwagon and there were some close calls as I drove next to the curb. Every time, Steffen would flinch and yell at me, but all-in-all I think I did reasonably well for my first bit of driving in Australia.

We checked in and were given a tour of the area. The only part of it I remember was when the worker said, “And here at the back at 8:15 every night we put out warm apple pie and vanilla ice cream.”

We were debating on what to do, and decided on a quick walk around town. The others were keen on finding something to eat, but I already knew what my dinner would consist of: pie and ice cream, and plenty of it.

We headed through the center of town and up towards the Rundle Street Mall. My watch said we were getting close to 8:15, and I split off from the others to head back to the hostel.

On the walk back I passed a couple girls sitting on the grass in a park with laptops in front of them. A thought struck me and I approached them to satisfy my curiosity. “Excuse me, are you guys getting wireless internet access here?” “Yeah” “Is it free?” “Yeah, you can get access in all the parks around the city, and most major streets too, I think.” City-wide free wifi access? Adelaide just went up a few notches in my book.

When I got back I was kept waiting past 8:15 for apple pie time, until I realized that Adelaide was an hour behind Melbourne. Finally, the pie was put out, and a line quickly formed next to the table in the outdoor patio. The apple pie was hot, and went perfectly with the ice cream. I had seconds, then thirds. Halfway through the second piece, the others came back and joined me.

After apple pie time Steffen and I walked down the street towards that same park where the two girls were getting free internet to see if I could connect. I stopped periodically on the street to try, but couldn’t find an open network. Finally, only a few meters form where the two girls were earlier, I got a two-bar signal and Steffen and I quickly checked our mail before heading back.

That night we took a stroll down the street to a pub on the corner of the street and sat outside drinking jugs of Coopers, the home brew of South Australia. We talked about what the girls would do from there. Both of them wanted to travel up to Ayer’s Rock near Alice Springs, but needed to do so on a tight budget. We also talked about finding work, and some girls Sophie met in Sydney who were working at strip clubs in Kings Cross. Nadja didn’t like the idea of strip clubs and felt bad for strippers, and if she were into that sort of thing, would never support that lifestyle by visiting a club. I managed to convince her that they could’ve chosen any profession to make money, but intentionally became strippers because of the money. These girls were in control of their lives and had deliberately chosen to live it a certain way, their stories didn’t warrant any pity.

When it was Nadja’s turn to buy a jug, she wanted to go to the bar and order it, to practice her English. I told her to ask for “the pale ale”, but she still wanted me to come with her for support. She said it fine, but rather softly and the bartender asked her to repeat herself. She became very shy and looked to me to order again. I told the bartender what we wanted, then told Nadja that her English was fine, she just needs to be more confident about it.


Halls Gap, Australia: Our Rainmaking Powers Dwindle

I know I’ve said this more times to mean anything now, but I’m going to have to rush through the rest of these posts, I really need to catch up. So, in the interest of time, I won’t be displaying any pictures here, but I’ll try to keep providing links to the picture albums.

The next morning I went with Colin on a short hike around the mountains near Tim’s Place. At the foot of one such mountain, at the edge of town before the highway creeps up the hill and out of town, we walked through a cricket oval to reach a hiking track. The oval was a fond foraging area for the local kangaroos, and that morning about 15 of them were milling about the edge of the forest. They were completely unafraid of us, only moving a few feet in response to our nearby footsteps. One of them, as we walked around the area trying to find the trail, we passed one that must have been about 4 – 5 feet tall while crouching, with massive and powerful legs. Colin didn’t even notice him until we were about 5 feet away, and the kangaroo only ran off into the forest as we walked directly behind him.

Colin and I followed the highway up the mountain until we saw an opening in the forest with a trail sign.

Colin was an agent, representing a performer who was playing at the jazz festival, and he had to be back in town by 9:30 for breakfast with his client. He told me about his other business ventures, such as creating and marketing a line of health food products.

As Betty had explained to us the night before, Tim was best friends with one of her sons, and after Tim’s parents passed away, Tim drew closer to Betty and her children, soon becoming almost an adopted part of the family. After Tim opened the hostel, Betty would help him out by taking care of the place for some time during the week. Colin and Tim had known each other in primary school, but Colin was closer friends with one of Betty’s kids, one of Tim’s adopted brothers.

Back to the story: Colin and I hiked through some of the wilderness, mostly mild inclines and easy terrain. On the way back, however, perhaps for his desire to work up a sweat, but I suspect it was because we were out of time, Colin started jogging back down the track. I was in it for the exercise and welcomed the change of pace. We jogged back down the road and Colin split right to head into town, I went left back to Tim’s.

By the time I got back, the others had risen and were eating breakfast. The weather had started to improve a little bit, but we were still eager to wait for sunshine before heading to more lookouts. To pass the time, we drove east towards Stawell and one of the many Aboriginal rock art sites. Bunjil’s shelter, which was recommended at the visitor’s center, is a depiction of Bunjil, a Creator-type deity who was involved with forming the landscapes, people and animals of the Aboriginal lands during the creation of the world, known as the Dreaming or Dreamtime. Bunjil is accompanied by two animals. The paintings were quite well maintained for being several thousands of years old, but we were expecting more, like what we had seen in photographs and tourist books: caves that are nearly wallpapered with rock art.

Back in Halls Gap, Steffen and I returned to the bakery for lunch. We rejoined the girls and sat on the lawn outside the row of shops to eat, and soon ran into Colin, who was on his way out of town.

After lunch, we went back to the visitors center to check out some of the exhibits on display in the cultural center behind the information building. The cultural center was quite informative, devoted to documenting the origins, treatment and hardships of the Aboriginal people from before, during and after European contact. The photographs and descriptions mirrored how the Native Americans¬† in North America had been affected by such colonization. Aboriginals had been confined to reservation-type mission settlements, forced to wear European clothes and play European games like cricket. They were driven from their native land by settlers who reneged on treaties and agreements and their children were taken from them because the Europeans didn’t believe they were fit to raise them in a modern culture. They suffered from diseases unknown to the Australian continent, and even today suffer higher mortality rates, lower life-expectancies and are plagued by social inflictions such as depression and alcoholism.

On a brighter note, there were also several exhibits showcasing traditions such as the making of tools and basket weaving. And a killer video on the Dreaming and how the natives believe the Grampians (the Aboriginal name for the area is Gariwerd, which means “Place of Annual Senior Citizens’ Jazz Festival”) and surrounding land were formed. I don’t remember the details, it reads like one of Aesop’s best, played out by Hunter S. Thompson on another acid trip, but it involves two hunters chasing some large bird-like beast through the valleys, creating rivers and mountains in their wake.

To quell our 21st century, college-educated (perhaps unimaginative?) curiosities, there was another half to the video that told the scientific story of the Grampians, that the sandstone rock was hardened while still under water, then thrust upward by tectonic forces.

Next we headed up the road for a trio of sites: The Balconies, The Pinnacle and McKenzie Falls. The Pinnacle and Balconies were nothing more than lookouts, however the Balconies form a kind of ledge.

Previous visitors were lucky enough to get to stand on them, but we were blocked by a railing. I was considering hopping it to get that perfect shot, but I thought about how the story would sound in next year’s Lonely Planet — how I would be “that guy” — and decided against it. Which guy, you might ask? This guy:

The area was still recovering from a bushfire, which is always nice for that beautiful contrast of crispy black bark and the bright green regrowth.

McKenzie Falls was fantastic, and the four of us spent quite a bit of time there, just sitting near the pool of water at the bottom.

Yep, that’s right, a friggin’ rainbow. We headed back up to the car and caught the lookout from the Pinnacle before heading back to Tim’s for dinner.

That night we had breakfast-for-dinner, some eggs and veggies, chatted outside and generally enjoyed our last night in Halls Gap. The day had turned out beautiful, the wind and rain only memories. Since there wasn’t much else to see in Halls Gap, other than doing some serious, several-hour long walks, we had decided to head to Adelaide in the morning. I bought a flight from Adelaide to Perth for Thursday, giving me only 2 1/2 days there (and from what I heard from Jake, that was plenty).

Halls Gap, Australia: Old People Make It Seem More Dignified

I woke up about 3 hours before the others and went for a quick jog around Penshurst. When I got back, I saw a large kangaroo bounding across top of the campground, just beyond the border with the road. I ate some breakfast and read while waiting for the others to get up.

After everyone was ready, we continued our journey north towards the Grampians National Park, specifically the information center at Halls Gap. We reached Halls Gap and were surprised to find that the main road had been blocked off, and traffic was being diverted around the town center. Lawns, parking lots and side streets were littered with cars and there was a veritable rabble that had gathered along the sidewalks of the small town. “What the hell is going on here?”, I asked more to myself than anyone else in the car. The other thing that had tickled the back of my mind was the number of older people amongst the crowd.

We parked, walked onto the main street and quickly found the information center. In front of the entrance a table had been set up with two women accepting money and distributing buttons. I picked up one of the brochures and was delighted to find that we had stumbled upon the Halls Gap Annual Jazz Festival. A big smile worked its way across my face and I looked at the Stef-meister and the two girls, “We seem to have arrived at the same time as their annual jazz festival.” Everyone was excited until we saw their admission prices: more than $100 for the weekend and $20 for a single concert. Below 18 years old was only $5 and I imagine the senior citizen concession was applicable, which explained the absence of the 18 – 55 year old market.

Knowing we’d never pay that much for a jazz concert, we decided to walk down the street and check out the town before heading out to see some of the sights. At the end of the main stretch was a small shopper’s village with a couple cafes, a souvenir shop, ice cream shop and a bakery. I walked by the bakery and saw a sign in the window that made my heart skip a beat: 2004 Silver Medal at the National Aussie Pie Competition. I had found redemption. Whatever happens, I told the others, we’re coming back here for lunch.

The national park’s visitors center was back down the road from where we came. Our usual routine was to step up to the counter and ask what was worth visiting in town. Usually, in more tourist-y towns, the person is happy to help, very cheery and pleasant to talk to — and will, if you give them the chance. I’ve had few experiences where information center staff is anything but friendly and welcoming. Most of the time, they’ve memorized their speech and will quickly produce a map and show you how to visit all the sights.

Indeed, when we arrived at the counter in the national park’s visitors center, the young woman behind the counter quickly whipped out a map with a smooth wave of her hand. In her other she held a bright yellow high lighter and while talking as fast as the Micro Machines spokesman, she began marking every driving route, bush fire zone, Aboriginal cave art site, lookout and campsite within a 50 km radius. After she finished I smiled and said, “you’ve done this before, haven’t you.”

The clouds were moving across the area very quickly, and even though many were colored an ominous, water-saturated grey, we thought good weather was in the forecast and we’d get to camp that night. We went ahead and purchased a camping permit for $12 and stepped over to the attached cafe for a morning coffee. The plan for the day was discussed over a couple long blacks and cappuccinos on the attractive patio behind the center: we’d first head to Mt. William, the highest peak in the Grampians, then swing through town for lunch. Afterwards, we’d head outside town towards Stawell (say “Stall”) to see a rock drawing that a visitors center worker deemed the best of the ones in the area. Time/energy permitting we’d swing by some of the waterfalls and lookouts in the area, but most likely just tent down for the night.

The walk up to Mt. William was terrible: the “track” is just a service road that’s closed to vehicles. It snakes it’s way up the side of the mountain, through ugly dust covered rocks and low-lying brush. The scenic views of the surrounding mountain range were mediocre at best, marred by power lines that sliced through any pictures you tried to take. The weather got progressively worse as we neared the top, but we had been so warned by the staff at the visitor’s center and I had appropriately worn both my jacket layers — the fleece lining and Gore-tex shell. Steffen and I reached the top first, an abomination of a radio tower greeted us with a Keep Out! sign. The wind was enough to push us from side to side as we made our way around the tower’s fence to the far side of the summit. There was a memorial stone there, honoring the discovery of the mountain by some Australian general and it’s subsequent naming. Steffen and I fired off some quick pictures before the wind knocked us down from the rocks we stood on.

By the time we reached the carpark, it had started raining and we were seriously reconsidering our decision to camp that night. Even if the rain let up by nightfall, the ground would be a soggy and muddy mess.

In town, with the conviction of a man who knows exactly what he wants, I headed straight for the Halls Gap Bakery. Steffen followed me in and purchased a veggie pastie (a semi-circle shaped pastry with a vegetable curry inside) that he later deemed “very good”. I asked the girl behind the counter which pie had won the award. Mince beef? Then lay it on me, sista.

The pie was disappointingly mediocre; I had expected nothing short of bliss in a buttery crust, and although the crust was quite nice — maintaining its integrity in the face of a gooey filling, yet still flaky and tender — the filling was much too salty and lacked any texture or character. But maybe I’m too critical of pies, or the ideal pie-in-my-sky is just so unattainable I should relish whatever meat-filled abomination finds it’s way to my plate. Wait, too critical? No more critical than National Pie Competition judges, I hope.

The sweet tooth that plagued my clinically obese youth reared it’s ugly head just in time for me to glance at the bakery’s window again and see a sign for something called a vanilla slice. And it had won an award too: first place at a competition in 1998.

A vanilla slice is a 2 – 3 inch square desert consisting of two crackers sandwiching a layer of thick vanilla custard, adorned on top with a thin coat of vanilla icing. The custard was transcendent: thick enough that it didn’t leak out the sides, not too sweet, but just right. The two crackers were difficult to bite through without forcing some of the filling to the outside of the slice, but once a portion was in your mouth, the combination of gel-like custard and crunchy cracker was delightful. The vanilla slice got two sticky thumbs up.

With comfort food safely in our bellies, we couldn’t fathom surviving the hardships of a cold, wet night out in the wilderness, so we started driving back to the visitors center to ask about a refund on the camping permit. I had already located a hostel in my LP that had many attractive amenities at a fair price. I was nominated as the guy who asks for the refund, since as the only American, my command of the English language was fluid and charming enough to convince a staff worker to hand back our money.

The staff was more than willing to refund the $12, and they even gave us directions to the hostel.

The hostel I was excited about was the Grampians YHA Eco-Hostel. Eco-Hostel, you say? From my LP, “There are several ecofriendly features, such as solar electricity and water conservation, at this five-star hostel … Your host puts out freshly baked bread, freshly laid eggs, freshly picked herbs, and all those eco-goodies for free.”

Ohh, this is what backpacking through heaven must be like.

I went in while the others waited in the car and secured four beds. The woman at the desk was even nice enough to shuffle others around to put us all in the same room. The price was $24 a night for YHA members, $29 for non-members. A five dollar difference was exceptionally steep and the others were unfortunately not YHA members. Sadly, I went back and told her to cancel the booking.

We had passed another hostel down the road called Tim’s Place that LP had described as “rambling”, but cosy. We called ahead and made sure they had four beds before arriving. At the hostel, we were greeted by the caretaker, a tiny, elderly woman named Betty. Betty was about 5 feet tall, with a tuft of red hair on her head, but a voice and demeanor of a firm, but caring grandmother. She immediately took us on a tour of the place.

Tim’s Place (yes, it was owned by Tim, but he was out of town at the time) consists of a small set of buildings just off the main road in Halls Gap. There were separate buildings for the common area, bunkhouses, guest villas and the caretaker’s house. The dorm room was very cosy and clean, and also came with a mirror and sink. Betty walked us by a rack of bicycles, which were free for guests, along with a ping pong table, tennis rackets and other game equipment. A small room held a surprisingly high-tech computer that offered internet at $2 an hour, based on the honor system (a small tip-jar sat by the keyboard).

The kitchen, dining and common areas were small, but welcoming. Free items included real French press coffee, rather than instant, and three different kinds of tea.

Betty was like everyone’s sweet old grandmother, and by the end of the tour, Nadja was already saying she wanted to adopt her and take her home to Switzerland. She both walked and spoke a mile a minute.

Even though the weather got better, we were enjoying the homeliness of Tim’s Place too much to venture out for anything. The four of us walked to the grocery store for dinner supplies, and while we were there, Steffen came up with the delicious idea of making curry that night. We bought some beef, onions, peppers, curry powder, coconut milk and rice and headed out. It was at this point that Sophie decided to tell us she didn’t like curry, but was willing to eat it.

Dinner was yummy, and afterwards we all gathered in the common area, sipping the leftover goon, reading newspapers and talking to Betty and the other guests. Betty was getting anxious awaiting the arrival of a busload of guests. In fact, she asked us to be finished with our cooking by 8:30 so that the kitchen would be free for their use. It was 9:30 and they had still not arrived. Finally, the “bus” got in, carrying only about 4 people. The driver was a friendly Australian who explained that his delay was due to him running into a kangaroo on the road.

Later, a fellow named Colin came in and was chatting the others up while I surfed the net. When I joined them, Colin asked if anyone wanted to join him in an early morning hike, and I agreed, since I would be the only one actually up early in the morning.

Betty finally found relief since the tour group had arrived, but was still perturbed by the disappearance of one of her dogs, Pudding. He’d be punished tomorrow, she promised.

Header Picture Change #5: The Twelve Apostles, Port Campbell, Victoria

Not that I don’t enjoy gazing upon that beach from Asbestos Range National Park (I know they changed the name to Narawntapu, but it’ll always be Asbestos Range to me), but I thought it was time to advance the header picture, just as I have advanced my tales from the road.

This picture is of the Twelve Apostles rock formations, just outside of Port Campbell in Victoria. I go into a TMI description of the natural wonder in my latest post.

If you’d like copies of these wonderful pictures, you can purchase them direct from the artist for $50 a piece (I include an autographed copy and an orange-flavored Tootsie Roll Pop), or I suppose you could download them for free from my new photo site.

Penshurst, Australia: The Potato Chips Monster Is Still Not As Scary As Chester Cheetah

After Apollo Bay the GOR takes a slight turn inland and through the Otway National Park. On the coast just outside the park is the Cape Otway lighthouse, which was supposed to be a great place to take pictures of the coast (yeah, I know, it’s like the 5th time I’ve said that, but I’m just going on what the ol’ LP says).

We knew there would be an admission fee for the lighthouse and it’s grounds, but no one knew how much. We pulled into the visitor’s center and I hopped out to ask what was the cost. They had turned the lighthouse and the old caretakers’ houses into a Port Arthur-style historical area and admission costs would buy you entrance to the grounds, access to the cape and a trip up the lighthouse. Unfortunately, they were painting the stone beacon and visitors weren’t allowed within 50 meters of the structure. Accordingly, the admission was discounted from an riotously outrageous $12 to a vigorously uproarious $10.50. I figured my mates would agree with me, but I certainly was not paying that much to see a bunch of old houses. Even if we had been allowed access to the cape, I would’ve wanted to see a postcard from that vantage first.

I got back inside the car and broke the news to the other three. A gust of disbelieving gasps blew through the stationwagon, and soon we were strapping ourselves back into the seats. Steffen had gone to check out a map and some pictures of the area and came back with reports of other backpackers laughing at the admission price. In front of me, on a small sloping lawn beside the reception area, stood a couple looking in the direction of their friends. Suddenly, two big grins broke out on their faces as they turned and fled into the forest that separated the carpark from the grounds. Such high taxation drives people to extreme ends, even revolution.

After powering through the Otway National Park (the weather was bad and none of us were in the mood to explore a forest), we arrived at the Gibson Steps, some 300+ steps that lead down to a beach, just east of the Twelve Apostles (in fact, one of the Apostles is visible from the beach).

In the parking lot Sophie ran into another Dutch guy she met at Jackson’s Manor. They chatted for a bit while Nadja, Steffen and I wandered the beach snapping pictures. We took off soon after and 10 minutes later arrived at the Twelve Apostles carpark. Let’s start with a couple pictures, then I’ll explain to you exactly what they are, using my powers of scientific regurgitation.

Not bad, huh? And I didn’t even have the benefit of a screen on my camera!

OK, so here’s the story: Imagine a straight coast made up of limestone, being attacked by waves for thousands of years. The harder rock areas of the coast maintain their structure, while the softer limestone wears away into the sea. Think about pushing two dips into that original straight coast, as if you were drawing the letter ‘W’. The hard rock points of the ‘W’ are called the heads, and slowly, just behind them, the constant assault of the ocean and the elements creates caves and cracks where soft rock meets hard. The stem of coastline behind the head starts to wear away, forming a bulbous overhead portrait similar to the profile of a Pawn chess piece.

Over time, that neck behind the head thins out and finally falls, crowning the head as a freestanding Apostle.

Check out this picture of one of the heads along the coast, at the stage of Apostl-ization where the neck is slowly being worked by nature.

You can already see the bulbous outline of the head as the neck thins. And in the dark shadows where the tide meets the shore lies a small cave, created by a wave working open a crack in the rock.

Eventually, the Apostle’s base will erode until the entire thing collapses, which is what occurred last July to one of the monoliths. Remember that picture above, the first of the three capturing the Apostles? See that pile of rubble lying on the beach? Well, that pile of rubble has looked like that since July 3, 2006. This is what it looked like on July 2:

If you think you’re done with geology for the day, don’t put away the rock hammer and tumbler just yet (couldn’t think of any other geologist’s tools).

Back down the road, we pulled into a three-fer: the Loch Ard Gorge, Thunder Cave and Blowhole. This stretch of the South coast is notorious for shipwrecks, and this area in particular was known for claiming the Loch Ard (hence … well, you know). This is the shipwreck site:

The Blowhole is a long natural tunnel formed through the rock by the action of the tide (for further commentary on how blowholes are formed, see my entry from Eaglehawk Neck). The first tunnel that led in from the ocean emptied into a larger chamber, the roof of which had collapsed, giving visitors a view of the fury of waves that crashed into the cave. It seems that after the crash of the Loch Ard, 12 bodies of sailors were washed into that chamber, and the entire area glowed purple because of the ship’s stock of matches that had also been swept inside.

The Thunder Cave is another natural cave that is dug into the coast, a popular attraction and so named because of the sound of the waves as they crash into the rocks that guard the entrance.

We were all rather starving, so we got back in the car and kept going west. The Twelve Apostles is the last major tourist attraction on the GOR, unless you’re interested in the charm of the coastal cities that precede and follow it. So you can imagine our surprise when we drove past a bay that featured rock formations that looked a lot like the Apostles, except larger and in greater quantity.

On the way out I discovered it was called the Bay of Martyrs. The pictures didn’t come out as well this time, but I can tell you the sight was spectacular. The sun had broken through the clouds and was reflecting off of every drop of water, including the spray that shot up as the waves hit each Martyr.

In Port Campbell the others had gotten a hankering for some fish & chips. I decided to cheap it out with a tuna sandwich, so we met up at a picnic table near the car and scarfed down our choices. Steffen’s book mentioned something about Port Fairy, further along the coast from Warnambool, where we’d have to turn north if we wanted to make it to the Grampians within the next day. I was against the idea of visiting the coastal city because I didn’t think there was anything more to see that we hadn’t already seen. I finally managed to convince the others and we set Warnambool as our target to re-supply before we banked North.

On the way towards Warnambool was the last of the South coast’s natural wonders: the London Bridge. The rock bridge was another arch like the Tasman Arch, the Blowhole, and every other natural arch-like rock formation we’ve seen so far. And yes, believe it or not, London Bridge fell down 17 years ago. Today it looks like this:

Here’s a kinda crappy before-after postcard picture I found on the net, showing you what the bridge looked like when it was still standing:

I’m not sure how they did it, but the girls managed to convince Steffen to have a dinner of salad with tuna. At a Coles in Warnambool we purchased some greens, tomato, tuna, dressing, onions and even splurged on an avocado for $3. For our drink, we chose some Goon. Not knowing anything about the area, we figured we could just keep driving north towards the mountains and look for campsites along the way.

An hour later we still hadn’t found anything, but were nearing the town of Penshurst. We finally caught sight of a caravan park sign and pulled into a small public park-like area with a modified school bus-come-trailer parked under the shade of a few trees. A man was taking some clothes off the line and we asked him about securing a site for the night. The cost would be $10 for all of us, and we could pull up anywhere. After we set up the tents, we got started on dinner. The girls did most of the work: Sophie started chopping the tomatoes and avocado and Nadja worked on the onions and final preparations. Sophie had finished with the avocado and set the plate of diced flesh onto the slightly curved lid of the Esky. Almost in slow motion, I saw the plate slide down the top of the cooler, and before I could hurdle the camping chair to stop it, the $3 dollar avocado was face down in the dirt behind the car. Sophie felt horrible and apologized profusely. I was no stranger to the shame of spilled food and consoled her as best as I could.

The goon was horrible. We made the mistake of getting a soft dry red, which is a little on the sweet side, and I simply couldn’t drink it.

The night before, Nadja had slept in the car with Sophie because she was unsure how she would handle the cold ground. I thought she might have felt shy about sharing a tent with Steffen, so I offered her my tent, but she really seemed hesitant about the temperature. Indeed, the next night in Penshurst she decided to try out a night with the Steff-inator.

I had zipped myself into my bag and was taking some notes on our activities for the day when from the car, Sophie called out with a slight tremble in her voice: “Bj?” “Yeah?” “There’s something in the car, can you come over here?” “What?!” “There’s something moving in the car, I heard it.” “OK, be there in a sec.”

I rolled my eyes and ignored the snickering from Steffen in the other tent, and stepped outside to the car. Sophie was sitting up in the back seat, her legs stretched out the rear driver-side door. “Don’t make any noise! Listen for a second and you can hear it.” Nothing. “I don’t hear anything Sophie, are you sure you did?” “Yes! I think it’s coming from the bag of chips.” “From the bag of chips?”

I cleared out a gallon jug of water that was leaning against the aluminum foil bag, picked out the bag of chips and dropped it on the ground. Sophie flinched and crawled to the other end of the car. I shook the bag around to prove to her that there wasn’t anything in the it, that the jug of water had probably shifted as she was moving around the car, and was crinkling the bag in the tight quarters of the trunk. She didn’t believe me, so I offered to keep the bag of chips in my tent for the night. “Nooo,” she said, resigned in her defeat, “it’s OK.”

The next morning the bag of chips was still intact, and even later during the trip we’d lick our fingers after devouring each salty, ruffled crisp, monster-free. And though the chips only lasted a few more days, the joke about Sophie’s Potato Chips Monster would live on forever.

Apollo Bay, Australia: Camping With Girls Means More Cooties

On Thursday morning I woke up early to run some errands before we headed west. Steffen had found someone online to share the ride with us, a Swiss girl named Nadja. She was meeting us at Jackson’s Manor around 11, so the three of us packed up and loaded the car before she arrived.

Phil, my friend from Brisbane, sent me a YouTube link of a video he took of us during New Year’s, check it out.

Nadja arrived and we were soon back on the road. But not before introducing the girls to some of the car’s … nuances. You see, sometimes it won’t engage in reverse after first starting it in the morning, and we had to do a slow roll out of the driveway of JM, gently rocking the car into a position from which we could drive out.

The first major town outside of Melbourne was Geelong, and we stopped at the visitor’s center to get the low-down on the Great Ocean Road. The staff there was incredibly friendly (of course), and were very impressed that American, German, Dutch and Swiss travelers could meet up, become friends and road trip together. They said that often they get people driving the Great Ocean Road by themselves, a thought unbelievable to us. Who would want to drive such a beautiful stretch of land alone?

As we drove through Geelong towards Anglesea, we were taken by our first glimpse of the south coast and quickly pulled over to take pictures at Aerie’s Inlet (from now on, these kinds of links will take you to the appropriate album of pictures).

The big tourist attraction around Anglesea is a golf course where Kangaroos roam the grounds. In fact, it’s OK for tourists to just park their cars and walk around the greens, stepping in ‘roo shit and snapping pictures. Or at least we figured it was OK and ran out near a putting green to find a group of about 20 of them relaxing in the shade.

Near the town of Lorne was one of the many south coast lighthouses and it gave us a pretty nice view of the coast. Apparently, the last lighthouse keeper (it’s now run by super-intelligent killer robots) rubbed out a hole in the blackout paint on the other side of the lamp so he could make sure the light was still burning while throwing back pints in the town pub. Smart man, though probably not quite as smart as the robots.

We lunched near the beach in Lorne before heading a little north of the town center for another lookout and the Erskine Falls. There was a short, 10-minute walk to Teddy’s Lookout, and from that height you got a great view of the Great Ocean Road in all it’s curvaceous beauty.

Around the bend from the lookout was Erskine Falls. Now, because of the drought we weren’t expecting much, but what we ended up getting was even worse than what we expected. It was as if the rocks were just spitting down the side of a cliff, not even worth a picture.

What was worth a picture was the sign at the head of the short track down to the falls lookout. It was the most intimidating caution sign I had ever seen:

While we were driving along the coast after surviving falling trees and snakes, Steffen suddenly pulled over to the side of the road and both he and Nadja shouted about a koala. We parked on the shoulder and ran back to find a couple standing on the side of the road, staring off into the bushes.

Sitting in a tree, just about 6 feet away from the last bit of gravel on the road was this guy:

He even shot a quick look at me, giving me what I believe was “the curious eye.” Kinda like he was thinking “If I stay still he may not see me, but I can’t, I’m really really hungry.”

After taking multiple pictures and even a video of the guy, we got back in the car and continued onwards. The koala and the crowd that had formed to gawk at him had drawn even more attention from passing motorists, and several people were walking down the road as we walked back up to the car.

Right before we hit the town center of Apollo Bay, the most popular stopover town on the GOR route, we drove up a steep hill to Mariner’s Lookout. People have complained about the lack of people in my pictures, so here’s one that Sophie managed to sneak into:

We finally reached the town center and stopped to find a liquor store, supermarket and someone who could point us towards a free campsite. We price-shopped a slab of beer and found some Toohey’s Red Bitter for$23.99, a steal. Dinner would be spaghetti, red sauce, tuna and mushrooms (the latter was Nadja’s idea, but very welcomed by all — the list of things Jake wouldn’t eat usually prevented us from enjoying such delicacies as canned mushrooms).

People have also been commenting on just how much beer I seem to be drinking on a daily basis. True, it’s probably more than most people, but it’s not enough to make me drunk. In fact, there’s usually several beers of the slab left by the end of the night, and despite being kept on life support in the Esky, we usually have to choke them down warm the next evening.

Unfortunately we weren’t so lucky with campsites as we were with food and beer, and the only park in the area was about 5 bucks a person. Once we saw the immaculate showers and serene creek-side sites, we were all willing to pay the fee. As Steffen and I set up the tents, Nadja and Sophie kicked back in the camp chairs and watched; they thought my tent was “cute”. Steffen and I shared a quick glance and rolled our eyes; we just figured it was the unfortunate side effect of camping with girls. We all pitched in to cook the food, but being gentlemen, Steffen and I took dishwashing duty (don’t worry, it was the girls’ turn next).

After the sun set the sky lit up with stars. Neither Nadja nor Sophie had been in Oz for very long, and had only spent their time in major cities, so they hadn’t seen the stars from the middle of nowhere. Nadja was completely blown away, standing for a long time with her head arched upwards, eyes and mouth wide open. We even saw what looked like a comet in the distance, with a faint tail coming away from it. It reminded me of the comet we saw in National Park in Tassie. I showed Nadja how to find Orion’s Belt and the Southern Cross and told her about the incredibly beautiful things I got to see while working for NASA.

Steffen and I would go on and on about stories from the Tassie trip, and how even though it was getting a bit chilly in Apollo Bay, it was nothing compared to the nighttime temperature in Tasmania. Sophie asked why us four guys didn’t all climb into Steffen’s tent and huddle together for warmth. Steffen and I proceeded to describe how close to death we would have to be to resort to that plan; Plan Z, so to speak. And the number of options we would consider before that, such as: 1) put on all of our clothes; 2) exercise all night long; 3) set aforementioned clothes/body parts on fire.

Sophie honestly didn’t understand why we thought four grown, heterosexual men clutching onto each other in a two-man tent for warmth rather than being a little cold was so objectionable. When we told Nadja she quickly agreed with Steffen and I. It must have been Sophie’s youth. For her sake I hope she holds her tongue in the future, other guys may not laugh the suggestion off so easily.

Melbourne, Australia: The Wrap-Up

I’m sprinting towards the finish here. Not much else happened during my last few days in Melbourne, so if I miss anything, don’t worry. The point is, you’re all pretty far back in the past right now and you need to catch up. Ready? OK, here we go.

The morning after Ray, Kieran and Owen’s (who, by the way, may or may not spell his name “Eoghan”) last night I caught Kieran in the kitchen packing up his food. They were planning on driving the Great Ocean Road for a day and flying out that night, so there was a lot he didn’t need. He bequeathed me a package of spaghetti, a bottle of oil and some pasta sauce. For any backpacker on a tight budget, this was gold.

Steffen, Sophie and I wandered around Elizabeth Street and looked at cameras. I was looking to replace my screen-damaged Casio and Steffen wanted to get an old-school 35mm SLR. Both Steffen and I were impressed by watching Ben take pictures on his SLR, but mostly because there were large additional lenses and tripods involved, and he looked a lot cooler than us with our small aluminum encased point-and-shoots.

Since it was Tuesday, the three of us went to Traffik for $2 pints. The atmosphere was considerably more muted than the previous week and we didn’t stay very long.

The next day, Wednesday, I was sitting in the dining room reading after finishing lunch when Jillian came in and began writing in her diary. She kept glancing up at me and then writing again. After a while I asked her what she was doing, and she scrunched her face and said, “It’s kind of a portrait.” When I finally got a look, it was a sketch of me looking rather Fu-Man-Chu-ish with bulging muscles. Next to the picture she wrote “BJ The Space Cadet, N.A.S.A.”. The portrait was holding a cube — Jillian admitted she screwed up on drawing the book and turned it into a cube. I thanked her for the muscles.

That night Sophie, Steffen, Ben, Rich and I went to the Queen Victoria Night Market. Unlike the market during the day, the night market features live music, arts and crafts stalls, and a wide range of ethnic foods. We walked down the row of stalls, trying to decide what to get. Ben had told me about a stall that served ‘roo, croc, emu and camel kebabs, and I was intrigued. However, we also found an Ethiopian food place and I had just finished talking about how I was also in the mood for some kind of African food. Steffen got a brat as an “appetizer” (in Steffen world, trust me, that is an appetizer) and the rest of us hit up the Ethiopian food. The fare was a lamb and beef curry as well as some kind of lentil curry, both absolutely delicious. They were served with two pieces of flat bread, which was soft and airy. It was so good, Steffen went back and got some as his main course.

After we downed our food, Steffen, Sophie and I wanted to head out to Carlton/Brunswick for some drinks. There was a hookah bar on Lygon St. I often passed when I was staying with Charlie and the three of us were definitely in the mood for some flavored tobacco and drinks in their outdoor patio. Ben and Rich headed back to the hostel and the rest of us jumped on the tram going in the opposite direction.

The hookah bar was too pricey for us, so we headed for Brunswick St. in the hopes of drinks and live music. As we walked down Brunswick, contemplating drink options we were suddenly taken with the music wafting out the open door of a small, dark club. It was Reggae vs. Electronic vs. Jam, and we all agreed without words that we had to go in and listen to some more. I don’t remember what the bar was called, but it was between the Fritz cafe and a store called Quick Brown Fox, if you’re ever in the neighborhood.

The band was School of Dub and it featured a keyboard, bass, drums, guitar and a funky-haired bongo/cowbell player. The music is hard to describe, but it was the perfect music to just sit back and relax. The club was small but suprisingly not crowded. Seats on the low, leather couches were in strong supply and there was even more room on the dance floor, since most people were calmly positioned on the sofas, enjoying the music and a conversation.

We had a few pitchers of VB and had to leave early to catch the train to St. Kilda. Even though we were only there for about 1 1/2 hours, it was well worth the trip.

Back at Jackson’s, I shot a quick game of pool with Valerio and said my goodbye. I got his email and promised I’d look him up when I’m in Italy later in the year. He wanted me to come out to the bars with him, but I had to wake up early the next morning: Steffen and I were planning on leaving for Adelaide and the Great Ocean Road, and we had even convinced Sophie to completely change the course of her trip and come with us.