Exmouth to Perth via Northampton

As in Broome, I had a vague intention of finding work in Exmouth in order to fund more diving and generally stretch out my dwindling funds, and this time I got as far as walking around the town looking for adverts on shop windows and notice boards. But, when it came down to it, I couldn’t quite summon the motivation to apply for service industry jobs, and the thought of staying in the town’s friendly but poorly maintained backpackers’ hostel helped me decide to move on south towards Perth. The questions then was how to get there. I had no luck finding another campervan relocation, and although the bus I’d taken down from Broome did continue another seventeen hours to Perth, I wasn’t keen on the idea of another overnight journey in a rattly, funny-smelling coach.

So it was with some relief that I heard about Red Earth Safaris, a small, Perth-based tour company that run eight-day trips from Perth to Exmouth and back again. Although they stopped for the sights and activities on the way up, for slightly less than the cost of a public bus ticket they offered a spot on the day-and-a-half return leg. And to sweeten the deal, food and a night’s accommodation was included, so I signed up online. Having spoken to some people at the hostel who had done the tour and was expecting a similar set-up to the tour I did in Alice Springs; some kind of small bus with 10-15 people, a fairly structured itinerary and an informative guide who would slip into ‘storytelling mode’ when he told the anecdotes he’d told a hundred times before. I was surprised then on the morning we left Exmouth to be met by a guide and just two other punters, in a car. As Nicola the guide explained, all of the other guests had opted to end the tour at Monkey Mia, several hours south of Exmouth, and so with so few people it made sense to carry on in the car rather than the big bus. It wasn’t what I was expecting but it made for a much more comfortable journey, and felt more like an informal road trip than a tour.

We set off after an early breakfast and drove all day, stopping for breaks at the funny little roadhouses along the way. We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and the 24th Parallel, the border of north-west Australia, and the landscape gradually changed as we made our way south. Green replaced orangey brown, fields replaced bushland, rolling hills replaced flat plains. We stopped for lunch in Carnarvon, in banana-growing country, as as we pushed on we passed fields of wheat, rapeseed and sheep, as well as plenty of wild goats (which apparently are quite a problem given their tendency to eat anything and everything). As we drove Nicola told me about the area and some of the things I would have seen on the journey up, while the two other passengers, a pair of grumpy German teenagers slept in the backseat. Nicola wasn’t a professional tour guide – she and her husband had just bought the company after he had lead groups for the previous owners for the last seven years, while she was an English language teacher and administrator for an ESL college in Perth, and was taking a break to consider a career change – and her unrehearsed storytelling style gave the journey even more of a road trip feel.

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The Convent

Our stop for the night was a hostel in Northampton, a town spread along the main road with 868 residents and three pubs, imaginatively named Top Pub, Middle Pub and Bottom Pub. Our accommodation was a former convent build in 1917, and now a hostel in the style of what I imagine hostels were like about fifty years ago. No light and bright spaces, no backpackers’ drinks deals and promo photos of young people having fun, no reception even. To get in we rang the caretaker Maureen, who came to meet us with a big bunch of keys and showed us around. We were shown the kitchen which didn’t seem to have changed since 1917, the living room with furniture that reminded me of my Granny’s house, and our simple bedrooms. When old buildings are repurposed, especially when they become hostels, the interiors seem to be refurbished to such a degree that they can lose their character, but here there was no chance of that as nothing, from the wallpaper to the furniture to the pictures on the walls, seemed to have been changed. It was quite nice really, and a beautiful building, but very, very cold.

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Leaning Tree

The next morning we set off early again and hit the road, passing by the town of Geraldton, scared some emus crossing the road, and stopped to have a look at one of the area’s ‘leaning trees’, trees that are bent so much by the strong winds that they grow horizontally. We came into Perth through the northern suburbs, which reminded me very much of Milton Keynes right down to the roundabouts. Arriving at lunchtime, Nicola dropped me off at the YHA Hostel in the city centre, and after nearly a month of small towns and deserted bushland, I was back in the hustle and bustle of big city life.

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Roadtrip: The Kimberley

The Kimberley is the northernmost region of Western Australia, tucked between the Indian Ocean and the Northern Territory. It is rugged and harsh, and very sparsely populated with only a handful of towns spread over an area slightly smaller than Sweden, but it also contains some impressive scenery, National Parks and even a lake. This lake, Lake Argyle, was our first stop in Western Australia and our first detour as we left the highway for a while to climb gently up through the red rocks, stopping at the Lake Argyle Resort, perched in a pretty spot overlooking the lake. There are several ways to ‘experience’ the lake, from helicopter rides to taking a dip in the infinity pool, but we couldn’t find a way to walk down the steep bush-covered slope to actually get down to see the water in person, so after enjoying the view for a bit we headed on back to the highway to the town of Kununurra.

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Lake Argyle

I should stress at this point that although ‘highway’ is technically the right word, the Victoria Highway, which runs from Katherine to just past Kununurra, and the Great Northern Highway, which goes from there to just beyond Port Hedland, are not what I would think of as highways. They are mostly single lane roads with a hard shoulder of hard orange dust, and the occasional two-lane overtaking section. They are well-maintained though and very easy to drive, and wide enough for any campervan – they’d have to be to accommodate the road trains, huge trucks pulling two, three or even more trailer loads. They’re pretty intimidating and can throw you off guard when one comes blaring towards you while you’re enjoying the peace and quiet of the empty road.

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The highway

Not that the road is that empty really; the Kimberley is a popular location for Grey Nomads and other campervan enthusiasts, and there are all manner of 4x4s, minivans and caravans on the road – not enough to make it a ‘busy’ road but enough that you rarely go more than a few minutes without seeing another vehicle. The question then is whether the drivers of the cars passing in the other direction are nice people or not, i.e. whether they return the ‘driver’s wave’, as you lift your hand marginally from the steering wheel to acknowledge their presence, and to give your hand something to do. This is what passes the time on these roads…

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The road

After making a lunch stop in Kununurra, a pleasant town that was bigger than I expected and surprisingly busy, we carried on driving through the afternoon until we reached our stop for the night on the edge of the Bungle Bungle National Park. Sadly we didn’t have time to visit the Bungle Bungles (or Purnululu) themselves, a rock formation comprising collection of huge stratified beehive-shaped lumps, as it takes a whole day to visit them, so we had to be content with staying in the caravan park on the edge of the National Park. It was fantastically remote and wild, with no lighting and few cooking facilities; the toilet and shower blocks were open-topped basic cubicles of corrugated metal, open to the sky. The stars were awesome.

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Sunset at the Bungle Bungle Caravan Park

The third day of the road trip started a little later, as we had been making good time, and we spent the day driving through the flat plains towards Derby, passing through the towns of Hall’s Creek and Fitzroy Crossing. These were the kind of strange, slightly creepy places that I had been expecting, with quite a lot of housing but very few businesses or obvious employment sources. It makes me wonder what the people here actually do, as there’s very little tourism in the towns themselves and there obviously aren’t any cities or bigger towns nearby to commute to. Apart from a supermarket and a primary school, and one or two other bits and pieces, I couldn’t see much that would actually support the population. Fitzroy Crossing particularly had an intensely quiet, ghost town feel about it; I could barely imagine living there, let alone growing up there.

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More road

That evening we arrived in Derby (to rhyme with Furby), a decent sized town by the sea. Walking along the tidal mudflats to the wharf it felt like weeks since I’d been near the sea, and I had to remind myself that it had only been three days since I had watched the sunset at the Mindil Beach Market in Darwin. Driving through the bush had had that effect I think, seeing nothing but dust and rock and bush almost makes you forget you were ever near the sea. I can easily imagine how it sent some of the early pioneers into insanity, even before you take dehydration and hunger into account. Back at the caravan park we were treated to a free concert from an Irish guy who has lived in Australia for many years. He serenaded the Grey Nomad audience with his songs (complete with backing track) about the beauty of nature and how the sun shines in the children’s faces, with song titles like ‘Kununurra Man’ and ’90k’s from Darwin’. It was like a cross between an old people’s home and Butlin’s.

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Derby Wharf

The town of Derby is built on a spit of land surrounded on three sides by reedy mudflats and then the sea. As such the town centre stops abruptly on these sides giving way to a vast flat space and lots of sky. It’s really very pretty and we spent the next morning looking around. For a small town it has an interesting history and care has been taken to preserve some of its historical features. This includes the old gaol, a ramshackle, open-sided tin hut which housed aboriginal prisoners in terrible conditions from 1906 until 1975. We also visited the Prison Tree on the edge of town, so called because it was a stopping point for aboriginal prisoners who were being brought to Derby for punishment or forced labour from more rural areas. The tree is a Boab tree, which have important spiritual significance in Aboriginal culture, and they are pretty cool trees. The species dates back 170 million years, while some individual trees are known to be over 1000 years old, and they look very distinctive. The trunks grow outwards, rather than upwards, becoming bulbous and swollen as they get older, but the branches remain relatively small. The tree is resistant to fire and as it grows the trunk becomes hollow inside. Like so many Australian plants and animals, they look a bit ‘not quite right’, like a child’s drawing of a tree, but they’re very nice all the same.

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Prison Boab Tree

Driving into Broome, with its international airport, street lights, and defined parking spaces, was like landing back on Earth after a trip to space. We were back in civilisation, albeit still hundreds of miles from the nearest city, and I was ready for a bit of rest and relaxation.

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The edge of town and a boab tree, Derby

Roadtrip: Darwin to WA Border

I had booked my train tickets a few months earlier in a moment of spontaneity, and it was a few weeks later that I started thinking about what I would do once I got to Darwin. To the west there appeared to be more or less nothing until you get to Perth, to the east is Cairns and the well-worn backpacker route of the east coast. I had heard good things about the east coast, but at the same time it sounded a bit hectic, a bit Gap Yah for me, and I quite wanted to do something different. But as I didn’t want to fly and couldn’t afford one-way car hire, transport through the all but uninhabited north west was looking problematic. I almost resigned myself to splashing out on an Intrepid tour, when I came across the idea of rental relocations.

The layout of the Australian road system lends itself to long-distance road trips, and because of the distances involved, many people will do a point-to-point rather than a round trip. This means there are cars and campervans that a returned in one place that need to somehow get back to their origin, and there are websites, like imoova and coseats, where you can find them. The fees are nominal and companies often reimburse some of your fuel, so the only costs are insurance, living costs, and petrol. The caveat is that you have a limited time frame to return the vehicle, and a mileage limit so you can’t take a roundabout route, and you put down a fairly hefty deposit to encourage you not to go AWOL.

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The campervan

Discovering this when I was still in Melbourne, I booked a two-seater kitted-out campervan to drive from Darwin to Broome, in Western Australia, over four days. I reasoned that I could either go on my own and see how I fared mentally with only myself for company, or if I met anyone on the way heading in that direction I could take them with me and share costs. I wasn’t sure which I option preferred (are you more likely to get murdered a) by a random stranger when you’re driving alone in the middle of nowhere or b) by a secretly psychotic almost-stranger while you’re driving with them in the middle nowhere?), but on the train to Darwin I met Cat, a youth worker from Leeds who was interested in heading in that direction and displayed no psychotic tendencies whatsoever. And so, after a few days in Darwin, we hit the road on my second Australian road trip.

Despite being more than twice the size of France, the Northern Territory has a population of just over 210,000. This is the smallest population of any Australian state or territory, including the tiny ACT (Australian Capital Territory) which is basically just Canberra. Around two thirds of this number live in Darwin, so the rest of the Territory is quite spectacularly empty on a scale that I can’t quite get my head around. For this reason, I was expecting our 1278 mile drive to be quite dull without anything much of interest to look at, and that was partly true. I hadn’t appreciated though how long distance driving changes the way you look at things. After an hour or so of driving through the bush, you find yourself noticing the smallest changes in the landscape, and pointing out things that under other circumstances would not be at all noteworthy. Aren’t the patterns on those rocks cool! Isn’t it weird how these bushes are different from those bushes before! Hey look, another termite mount! Cows! It’s weirdly therapeutic, to start noticing and appreciating the differences from one patch of emptiness to another.

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The route from Darwin took us south at first, following the Stuart Highway alongside the train line back to Katherine, and we stopped at the hot springs for lunch. I’ve had disappointing experiences with hot springs before, like in Banff where it was basically an overcrowded outdoor pool – nice views, but the turquoise tiles and chrome steps detracted from the naturalness a bit – but Katherine was lovely. From the car park you wouldn’t know there was anything there, there’s barely even a sign, but as we walked down the steps into the valley, we found a stream, interspersed with pools and small waterfalls, shaded by tropical leafy trees. It was really nicely done, with enough subtle handrails and sympathetic landscaping to feel natural and very relaxing.

Carrying on into the afternoon, we headed west along the Victoria Highway passing through the (relatively) dramatic Gregory National Park. We stopped for fuel at the Victoria River Roadhouse, a remote, tiny place where the pump isn’t connected to the tills and they trust you to tell them how much you owe. One of the campervan rental conditions is that we were not allowed to drive between dusk and dawn, primarily because kangaroos have a habit of bounding into the road at sunrise and sunset, so we stopped for the night in Timber Creek, a settlement of 200 people centred around a hotel/roadhouse/caravan park on the highway. The creek itself, which runs along one end of the caravan park, is home to crocodiles (the hotel holds a croc feeding session for visitors every couple of days) and the surrounding tree contain the biggest bats I’ve ever seen in my life. Needless to say we picked a camping spot nice and far away from the creek.

Keen to get on, we got up bright and early the next morning, and after a couple of hours arrived at the Western Australian border at around 10:00am. Or at least, 10:00am Northern Territory time, as in the excitement of having to surrender all the fruit and veg we’d bought the previous day, we forgot about the 90 minute time change between the states. We didn’t notice until that evening, and spent the whole day living an hour and a half ahead of everyone else. Should’ve had a lie in.

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Western Australian border

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.

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’.