The Mornington Peninsula

The original, albeit vague plan for our road trip was to complete the Great Ocean Road and continue westwards to Adelaide, before heading back to Melbourne swiftly over one or two days. As the trip progressed this expanded to include a trip to Kangaroo Island and the wine region of the Barossa Valley, but we realised when we got to Warrnabool just how far away Adelaide is. This combined with the fact that the ferries to Kangaroo Island were fully booked (we had also failed to take the Easter weekend into account), lead to us changing our plan and heading back east to the Mornington Peninsula. It ticked similar boxes as what we had hoped to do in South Australia – wine tours, wildlife, ferry ride – but with the added bonus of being a ninety minute drive from Melbourne, so when we left the Grampians on Maundy Thursday, we headed back towards Melbourne along the A8 inland road.

We stopped for lunch in Ballarat, the town which in the mid-19th century was the at the centre of Australia’s gold rush. The gold rush was a real game changer for Australia, transforming it from a place of exile to a country where people could make their fortunes, attracting workers from Europe, north America and China; for ten years in the middle of the 19th century, Australia produced one third of the world’s gold. Today Ballarat is a small, quiet, cosy-feeling city, with pretty suburbs and a nice lake.

After lunch we headed across country down towards Geelong and on to the ferry port at Queenscliff, and made the 45 minute journey across Port Philip Bay to Sorrento, on the Mornington Peninsula. It was a pleasant journey and we were joined by some dolphins leaping around next to the boat for most of the journey.

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Sorrento Pier

At just 90 minutes’ drive from the centre of Melbourne, the Mornington Peninsula is a popular weekend and retirement destination for well-heeled Melbournians, and it’s easy to see why. The towns were very pretty, although they did have a tendency to merge into each other and otherwise feel a bit like far-outer suburbs, and any activities you would want from a weekend seaside break were on offer. The bay-side beaches were flat and calm with sailing and motor boats moored a mile or so out. On the ocean side the sea was much wilder, as you might expect, with rocky coves and crashing waves interspersed with sandy surf beaches. Inland there is some nice walking, like the stroll we did around Arthur’s Seat, a mixture of landscaped garden, natural woodland, and lovely views over the bay.

The main inland attraction however was the areas vineyards, and on our second day there we did a wine tour, led by Trevor in his little minivan. Trevor was what I would term as an old-school tour guide; in his late sixties, his approach was to take the group to wherever he thought was good and wouldn’t be too busy – making it up as he went along, essentially, a fairly risky strategy with a group of ten on Easter Saturday. Still, it worked quite well for the most part and he was very knowledgeable and clearly well known and liked around the wineries. The only slight issue came in our last stop, a winery and brewery that our fellow tourers had requested, which didn’t offer free tastings to walk-in groups. Trevor protested that this wasn’t mentioned in any of his books, and we didn’t have the heart to suggest that in this day and age he might have checked their website. But despite this it was an enjoyable day and, as ever with this kind of thing, I felt like I was learning all kinds of things, most of which I have now forgotten.

The highlight of the Mornington Peninsula, and possibly the whole trip, came the following day when we went on a Moonraker Dolphin & Seal Swim. Only slightly hungover after the previous day’s wine (and beer at the pub in the evening), we arrived at Sorrento Pier to be kitted out with wetsuits, fins and snorkels, boarded the boat and headed out into Port Philip Bay. The boat and the gear all reminded me of my scuba diving trip in Thailand, albeit a good ten degrees cooler, and I was excited to get into the water. The first stop and main attraction was to see the dolphins, and before long we had found a [pack] of them and got ready to go into the water. Local laws quite rightly ban businesses from using food or any kind of treats or aggressive tactics to lure the dolphins over, so when they had found the dolphins, two of the crew got into the water and started diving around, clapping their hands and trying to attract the animals’ attention, while someone stood at the top of the boat telling everyone when they were coming closer. There were about thirty punters on board and in groups of ten we got into the water and hung on to a line looking down into the water, waiting for the dolphins to swim past. The problem was, it was quite difficult to hear over the noise of the water where we should be looking, added to which the snorkel mask gives you a pretty limited rang of vision. When I did happen to be looking in the right direction, the water was so murky and the dolphins so fast that I barely had time to register what I was seeing before it had disappeared. I found it quite stressful, to be honest, but I did enjoy being on deck when the other groups were in the water and watching the dolphins swim around us from the boat.

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Dolphin swimming

I was feeling a little disappointed when we were finished seeing the dolphins. I had been a little unfortunate in that whenever I was in the water only a couple of dolphins came over and left very quickly, while the other group had four or five hanging around them for a while. But I was looking forward to seeing some seals and this was the real highlight for me. The boat drew up to an offshore lighthouse, a wooden structure on iron pillars in the water, topped with a simple light, and on the wooden boards were about thirty male seals basking in the sun. Some of them stayed there snoozing, while others flopped in and out of the water, casting a beady eye over us. For this part, rather than waiting for the animals to come to us, we were free to swim around the structure and although the current was quite strong it was fantastic to be in amongst the action.

At the end of our afternoon in and on the water, we had an early dinner in Sorrento before heading back to Melbourne. My friends would stay another few nights there before heading home, and I was back at work in a few days time. It had been an excellent road trip in every respect; we had eaten well, seen lots of wildlife, and for the first time I had actually enjoyed camping. Old and untrendy as it was, the van had treated us well, even when we gave it a battering on the corrugated dirt roads. After a few months away from home it was really nice to spend time with people I’ve known for years and years, even with the wind-ups and bickering that came with it. But most of all, I was left with a sense of how much there is to see in this country, and by the time I got back to Melbourne I was already thinking about my next trip.

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The Grampians National Park

As we headed north from Warrnambool towards the Grampians National Park, for the first time I started to get a sense of inland Australia. We followed minor roads through small towns and agricultural land, crossing the flat plains with the mountains rising up ahead of us. It felt like we were moving to a different part of the country, although at just two hours inland in a country where you’d need weeks to drive from coast to coast, it was hardly the outback.

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Named by the British after the mountain range in Scotland, the Grampians National Park feels quite British in some ways, and decidedly not in others. Our campsite, a well-appointed holiday park on the edge of Hall’s Gap, was frequented by a mob of kangaroos (yes, that is the collective noun), who grazed around our camping plots during the night. On our first night I walked from the amenities block to the van without a torch, and would have walked right into a big mean-looking one if it hadn’t been chewing so loudly. There were also plenty of white and yellow cockatoos, which we’d seen quite a lot of, and kookaburras, which we hadn’t. Like quite a lot of Australian animals, kookaburras look like an amalgamation of various animals that don’t quite go together; a huge squat head with a pretty intimidating beak stuck on to a weedy little body, making them look like they could topple over any second. Over dinner we watched a group of middle aged Australian campers feeding them strips of cooked meat, which the birds took in their beaks and beating them on the ground with all their might until they were convinced the bits of cooked meat were in fact dead, before swallowing them whole.

The mountains here aren’t the biggest – the highest point is only 1,168m (3832 ft) – but like the mountains in UK, what they lack in sea level metres they make up for in drama and variety. On our first day we walked from Hall’s Gap to the Pinnacle, a popular viewpoint over Hall’s Gap and its surrounding lakes and forests. It was a varied walk, taking us first along a shady creek, then up through steep, narrow canyons and bouldery rock formations, and finally up to the rocky summit.

It was lovely to be walking in the mountains again, and the following afternoon when our plans of going rock climbing fell through, we drove up to the northern end of the Grampians to do the short, scrambly hike up Hollow Mountain. A favourite spot for climbers and boulderers, this walk took us through the brush, still scarred from the forest fires in 2014, before climbing steeply up through the limestone boulders of the mountain. There were plenty of caves, ledges and gullies to explore, with lovely views over the plains to the north of the National Park.

For the slightly lazier nature enthusiast, the Grampians had plenty to offer besides walking. As well as a spot for walking and climbing, Hollow Mountain is also an important spot for the local Aboriginal group, the Jardwadjali. Not far from the start of the walking trail is the Gulgurn Manja, or ‘Hands of Young People’ cave painting, a collection of hand prints, emu tracks and parallel lines painted in vivid orange and white inside a shallow cave. In its sheltered spot with a wide, open view overlooking the vast plains, it’s easy to understand why this spot is of great cultural significance to the Jardwadjali people. Likewise the Bunjil Shelter, on the eastern edge of the National Park, was a perfectly chosen spot. We stopped by as we left the Grampians on our way back to Ballarat, to see the cave painting there of Bunjil the creator, and his two dingo helpers.

Other spots we visited included the Balconies, a dramatic rocky shelf jutting out into the valley, Bellfield Lake, a pleasant lake with dead trees sticking up out of the water and emus running around on the shore, and MacKenzie Falls. At this point in the trip, we had tried and largely failed to see some impressive waterfalls. Sheoak Falls near Lorne was completely dry; Splitters Falls on our walk to the Pinnacle was barely a trickle; even Erskine Falls, also near Lorne, although very pretty was not exactly the dramatic gush we had expected. So as we followed the path down to the bottom of MacKenzie Falls, our expectations were pretty low; as long as there was some water in it, we’d be happy. What we found was a wide cascade, complete with rainbow, in a cool, pleasant valley. Expectations certainly exceeded.

The Great Ocean Road: part two

Lorne to Warrnambool

As we left Lorne on the fifth day of our trip, we decided that we needed to pick up the pace if we were going to tick off all the places we wanted to visit, and we agreed to cover some more substantial ground that afternoon.

After a quick walk to Sheoak Falls, which I imagine would’ve been very pretty if there had been any water coming over them, and a quick lunch in the town of Wye River, we made a wildlife stop in Kennett River. We had been advised by the Lorne Visitor Information Centre to turn off the main road here and drive inland a short way for the best chance of seeing koalas in the wild. We found them easily, or at least we found the people pointing cameras up into the trees easily; the koalas themselves were a bit trickier to spot, but there were quite a few when you knew where to look. Most of them were high up in the trees lazily munching the eucalyptus leaves, but we came across one crossing the grass from one tree to another with its strange hobbly way of moving.

The road along this part of the Great Ocean Road was probably my favourite, winding its way up the cliffs to lovely viewpoints before coming back down to sea level to cross over creeks and streams. We made plenty of stops to admire the various views, including one at a beach just before Apollo Bay, where over the last couple of years people have taken to building little towers of pebbles balanced on each other. The beach is now covered with these stone piles, which makes it seem like they should have some kind of cultural significance, like the Canadian inukshuk, but as far as anyone can tell people just like balancing rocks on other rocks.

After a quick stop in the town of Apollo Bay we followed the road inland as it cut across Cape Otway through the forests of the Great Otway National Park, and came off the main road for a while to head back towards the coast to see the Cape Otway Lightstation. It was a nice drive through the forest, with plenty of wildlife spotting, and we had a quick glimpse of the lighthouse before moving on. Coming back to the main road we took another quick detour to see pretty lake along a bone-rattling bumpy track, before arriving at our campsite in the hamlet of Princetown. It was a pretty campsite with a nice view over the river and, most importantly, a kitchen with a fridge, toaster and kettle. Luxury.

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Princetown Campsite

The next morning we did our first proper walk, from Princetown to probably the most famous part of the Great Ocean Road, the Twelve Apostles. It was the final section of the Great Ocean Walk, a 105km trail starting in Apollo Bay, and the path took us across the river valley and through the sandy brush surrounded by tea trees and spiky shrubs, emerging on the cliff tops with lovely views of the sea and the Twelve Apostles. They are a group of dramatic limestone pillars in the sea, the highlight of a section of coastline scattered with gorges, caves and arches carved into the rocks by the ocean. Originally named the Sow and Piglets, with the Sow being Muttonbird Island to the north, the limestone stacks were renamed the Apostles in 1922 to encourage tourism, and despite there only being nine (one of which collapsed ten years ago), they are now known as the Twelve Apostles.

After retracing our steps back to Princetown, we had some lunch and had another foodie visit to Timboon Distillery and local produce shop, before heading back to the coast. We spent the afternoon exploring the interesting things that seawater does to limestone, from Loch Ard’s Gorge, named after a nearby shipwreck, to Thunder Cave where water is forced through a tunnel producing a pretty thunderous noise, and London Bridge, a limestone arch which aptly enough fell down in 1990, leaving two people stranded on the newly formed pillar, from where they were rescued by helicopter. This part of the coast, with its shipwrecks, caves and cliffs, reminded me very much of the Jurassic Coast in southern England and was my favourite coastal scenery of the trip.

From there the road turned inland through agricultural land to where the Great Ocean Road ends quite unceremoniously as the road joins the highway. After visiting the pleasant town of Warrnambool (which I’m still none the wiser how to pronounce), we camped in a roadside rest stop, ready to head inland the next day to the Grampians National Park.

The Great Ocean Road: part one

Torquay to Lorne

Two weeks after arriving in Melbourne, I was joined by two old friends for a road trip around Victoria. We borrowed a friend’s van and some camping stuff, stocked up with bits and pieces in Kmart, and headed onto the highway towards the Great Ocean Road.

Starting 90 minute’s drive south west of Melbourne, the Great Ocean Road stretches 150 miles along the dramatic coast of western Victoria and passes through forests, creeks and waterfalls, farms and vineyards, sleepy towns and cliff top beauty spots. It was built between 1919 and 1932 as a war memorial with the added purpose of providing jobs for returned servicemen, and continues to provide jobs in the area in the form of tourism.

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The Great Ocean Road, near Sheoak Falls

Our first night stop and the official starting point of the Great Ocean Road was Torquay, the first in a host of English seasidey names along this part of the coast. This Torquay is known as a surfer town, being the birthplace of Rip Curl and Quiksilver and the nearest town to Bell’s Beach, a world renowned pro surfing spot. It was nice and relaxed, with a new town feel to it that was quite refreshing after the historical Londoniness of Melbourne; what Banff or Whistler are to Canadian snowsports, Torquay is to Australian surfing. We were quite inspired to do some surfing ourselves, but weren’t organised enough and would have to wait until we got to Lorne a few days later. Instead we spent a morning enjoying the wide, flat Front Beach and having a wander around the rocky outcrop of Point Danger.

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Back Beach, Torquay

That afternoon we continued along the road, stopping first at Anglesea for a rockhopping beach stop, and then at Aireys Inlet for the first of many pub stops, at the Aireys Pub, home of Rogue Wave Brewing. Australia is known for being a beer drinking nation, and microbreweries have seen the same rise in popularity over recent years here as in the UK, and we tasted plenty during the trip. The beer was almost always very good, but it all got a bit weird when it came to quantities. Middy, pot, schooner, the drink sizes are different wherever you go; one quantity can have multiple names and one name can mean different volumes. Only one thing’s for certain, you almost certainly won’t get an actual pint, even if that’s what they say you’re getting. It’s more of an abstract general term, like a ‘bunch’ or a ‘slice’, it doesn’t equate to an actual measurement. But the beer was good.

Aireys Inlet is also home to Split Point Lighthouse, a pretty white tower on a rocky cliff in one of the most historically dangerous coastlines in Australia. It’s was also used to film the children’s TV programme ‘Round the Twist’, about which I can remember exactly two things; a) the theme tune, and b) the fact that it was set in a lighthouse. After seeing that we headed inland, away from the Great Ocean Road for the evening, to a free, basic campsite near Wensleydale, on the edge of the Great Otway National Park. Away from the main road the track got very bumpy very fast, but we saw a few wallabies in the bush along the way and a huge eagle flying over the van. Our spot for the night was what some people would describe as a ‘proper’ campsite; a car park in the forest next to what may or may not have been a billabong. No mobile homes, no kitchen, nothing at all but an unplumbed toilet block and a rainwater tap. We cooked dinner on our little gas stove and spent the evening sitting around our fire trying to get ‘Waltzing Matilda’ out of my head.

The next morning we headed back to the coast along another bumpy road and back onto the Great Ocean Road to Lorne. A decent sized town, Lorne is a popular spot for families and older people as well as being the gateway to the waterfalls and forests of the Otway Ranges. It’s an artsy kind of place and there was a public sculpture festival on while we were there, with a trail of nearly forty modern sculptures dotted along the seafront. There are lots of lookouts and walking trails around the town, and although we made it up to the coastal view of Teddy’s Lookout and the 30m drop of Erskine Falls, the weather broke on our second day there, stopping us from doing a proper walk. Instead we did a bit of a foodie tour inland in farm and vineyard country, following part of the gourmet Otway Harvest Trail.

Australia in general, and Melbourne particularly is a foodie heaven, and this part of Victoria prides itself on its local food and artisan producers. We stopped for lunch at Birregurra Farm Foods, a farm shop and cafe on the high street of the small rural town of Birregurra. From the outdoor pizza oven cooking pizzas topped with locally produced mozzarella, to wines from the vineyard down the road, to the salad made with heritage tomatoes grown by the guy on the next table, the waiter/chef/shopkeeper could tell us the origin of every thing on the menu. After a long lunch, as it started raining again and I finally abandoned my hope of a walk, we headed straight to the next eatery, the Forrest Brewery in the town of Forrest. Here I had my first tasting paddle and we sat around until we decided we’d waiting long enough for a piece of cake.

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Teddy’s Lookout, Lorne

After the gluttonous day before, by day five we were ready for some exercise, so our surfing lesson that morning was very welcome. We all got on pretty well, at least managing to stand up once or twice, and the rain mattered less when we were standing in the sea in wetsuits. After that we moved on from Lorne, heading towards Cape Otway where the coastline turns the corner from the gentle ‘Surf Coast’ to the dramatic ‘Shipwreck Coast’.