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.
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.
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.