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.

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