Leaving Cape Otway lighthouse we drove along a winding road lined with the slender trunks of gumtrees. A few cars had pulled up seemingly at random, and their occupants were acting in the manner of people who are undergoing an experience of some sort – they stopped in the middle of the road, walked out in front of traffic, stood with necks craned aloft like meerkats and suddenly took off running into the trees. A passer-by accosted me, giddy with excitement. “Koalas! There, in the trees!” She ran off. Three Chinese were uttering shrill cries at the base of a tree, halfway up which sat a bundle of grey fur. The bundle stirred itself and peered blearily around, to a chorus of chirps and clicks from assorted cameras. A man with a Scandinavian accent and a worried expression came loping down the road. “There are four… no, five more on the other side,” he announced, with the air of one who has just detached himself briefly from some important work that he simply must get back to at once. We ambled into the trees. A pair of teddy bear tufted ears appeared in the cleft of a tree, followed by the rest of it. The ears swivelled, taking in the scene below, the koala yawned, and went back to sleep. We dutifully took scores of photos of leaves and branches, with the occasional glimpse of koala visible by accident. As we were walking back along the road one decided to slowly ascend a branch while uttering a series of strange groaning noises, which galvanised the small crowd below into further frenzied activity, trying to find the video settings on their phones. I was secretly quite pleased – having stroked a couple of kangaroos I had now seen koalas in the wild – and relatively close at that. All that remains now is a wombat. Preferably a live one.
Leaving the koalas and their onlookers behind, we continued our journey west along the Great Ocean Road. After a brief halt at a motel that looked like some outback pub for a tepid pie and oven chips, we emerged from the Great Otway National Park onto the coast once more. The first brown tourist signs began to appear, indicating the Twelve Apostles. We had been concerned that we might miss them, perhaps during one of the many occasions when I was rummaging around on the floor of the car in search of the change which had fallen out of my trouser pockets – something which happened with the regularity of a Las Vegas slot machine. But no – we couldn’t possibly miss the site: a huge car park off to the right, some modernistic visitor centre and a couple of helicopters buzzing around, taking people out for an aerial view. The site was at least free of charge, and we made our way through a tunnel under the road and out along a walkway to experience the brooding solitude of the sea stacks in the company of a few hundred others. It was the largest concentration of tourists I’d seen since arriving in Australia – and this mid-week in the off season. I inadvertently photobombed numerous people who were cleverly taking selfies of themselves with telescopic poles attached to their phones, and felt obliged to pull the duckface expression each time – although I refrained from doing a peace sign. A tour bus of Chinese had clearly just disgorged itself, judging by the vast majority of spectators. But then I spotted an Indian aunty clad in purple shalvar kameez wading through the crowd, arms akimbo. In her wake came a few dozen more Indians, including the ubiquitous moustachioed uncle in an Argyll tanktop bringing up the rear. As the uncle drew alongside us he began loudly conversing with the aunty at the lead of the column, some twenty yards ahead of him. I scrutinised this meeting of two cultures on the south coast of Australia surreptitiously; with 1.3 billion Indians in the world and 1.4 billion Chinese, soon a third of the world’s population will be Indian or Chinese, which is an interesting thought. Aunty was making great progress through the crowd in a re-enactment of the parting of the Red Sea, and I wondered what they made of each other’s presence.
The stacks were rather folorn in comparison – I could only count five, some in better repair than others – but turning around and looking in the opposite direction to the one the crowd were all facing, three more stacks were glowing golden in the rays of the afternoon sun. Still further along the coast lies a promontory named London Bridge (falling down, apparently), which had been a popular viewpoint as it was attached to the mainland. Each year the hole in the cliff beneath it became a little larger with erosion, until one day the small bridge of rock attaching it to the mainland collapsed – much to the surprise of a couple who found themselves standing on a newly formed stack, having just walked over the bridge some minutes before. A dramatic rescue was launched, and they were eventually winched off the top by helicopter and dropped into the middle of a camera scrum as the assorted media teams had gathered to capture the rescue on live television. The amusing thing about this lucky escape was that the couple immediately fled the scene; it turned out they were having an affair, and their romantic getaway in an isolated spot had dropped them right into the spotlight of the evening news.
After a brief diversion around a series of roundabouts in the underwhelming town of Port Campbell, we regained the road once more. Our ultimate goal was Port Fairy, a short way beyond the end of the Great Ocean Road, described as “quaint and hugely appealing” in the Rough Guide. The road led inland once more, and we passed through miles of lush green pasture dotted with cows. More than once I commented on how much it resembled the East Anglian coastline of England. But then a strange sight – an Irish tricolor flapping in the garden of a small and rather ramshackle house. The name plate on the gatepost said “Clonmara”. A few flecks of rain began as if on cue. We were approaching the village of Killarney, and Irish names were all around – there was O’Reilly Truck Hire, at least one Shamrock Hotel, and many Hibernian house names. The landscape too now looked much more Irish than East Anglian, but on a scale that could only have been Australian – the views went on for miles. Entering the town of Warnambool we drove along a dual carriageway lined with car showrooms and 3-star motels; one motel / bar spotted a slogan that said: “New decor! Even better than before!” Looming over the town was a curious metal sphere on tripod legs, rather like an illustration I once saw on a Sci-Fi book cover, which we immediately dubbed the Warnambool Bauble. Off to the right a line of funfair onion domes caught my eye; the Moscow State Circus was in town. This was clearly something of an event in Warnambooble as the posters advertising it continued on for several miles beyond town.
As abruptly as the US-style strip malls had begun, they ended, and we were back in Ireland. The sun was coming out after a thunderous downpour and the road shone. We crossed the Mourne River and saw the sign for Port Fairy coming up. Turning off the main road into the town centre we drove along enormously wide streets – wider even than those of Bulawayo, which was said to have roads designed so that you could do a U-Turn with a team of eighteen oxen attached to your wagon. I suppose roundabouts would have been impractical in the circumstances. The houses of Port Fairy looked old – turn of the century or even earlier – and had a distinctive charm. Few people were about, and we rumbled up the main street which we had largely to ourselves. This was something I had noticed about many Australian towns – that they seemed eerily deserted – but nowhere was it more pronounced than in Port Fairy. You begin almost to fear that some great calamity has befallen the place and you’ve just arrived in the aftermath. Even so, it was a pleasant, relaxing sort of a place to wander around – much larger than I had expected from the guidebook, rather like a town that felt like a village. Up a sidestreet we found the YHA in a charming colonial era building, and having unpacked, we headed out for dinner. The main drag was Bank Street, with a few restaurants visible: a posh Italian place, several closed cafes, a pizza joint, a couple of Chinese takeaways that looked as if they specialised in the sort of sweet and sour orange gloop that you’ll never see in China, and a Turkish restaurant called Ramellahs, which looked the most promising. Well – it was an inspired choice. Here, in this bizarre deserted town at the bottom of Australia, we had the best Turkish food I’ve ever eaten. Iskender kebab with lamb of such tender succulence that I was tempted to eulogise it in song. Chicken kavurma with just the right hint of smokiness from the grill. It was extraordinarily good. And all this for $20 a head. Seriously – if you’re ever in Port Fairy (well, you never know), Ramellahs. Highly recommended.
After a flat white and a chocolate brownie at a cafe in town the next morning we hit the road once more, heading for Halls Gap – the township that lies at the heart of the Grampians National Park. The road was dead straight across the flat green fields, but soon we could make out the silhouette of hills on the skyline. These grew imperceptibly larger with every kilometer, looming over the plains rather like Kilimanjaro dominates the skyline of Amboseli. The road entered the National Park and the temperature dropped as we began to climb, forests thickening around us on all sides. A few kilometers short of Halls Gap we spotted the park’s visitor centre, characterised by a highly convoluted one way system which kept trying to divert us back out of the car park and onto the main road again. We picked up a few brochures and maps before heading into Halls Gap proper, and inadvertently drove through the town and out the other side before we realised we’d missed it. Nestled in a valley surrounded by forested hillsides, the wind rushed through the trees with the sound of a mountain river. At the small shopping centre we had lunch at the Live Fast cafe (presumably the Die Young franchise failed to take off) and stocked up in the supermarket for a two night stay at the Grampians YHA. This was another eco-lodge along the lines of Apollo Bay, but it felt significantly more run down; entering the reception one was greeted by the smell of rubbish, which somehow seamlessly morphed into odour of septic tank the nearer one got to the bathrooms. This was a pity, as it was otherwise well appointed – just neglected. There were a handful of other guests in residence, the usual assortment of characters. There was a gravelly-voiced local who was catching up on a few creature comforts before heading into the hills for a while, a woman in her 60s who was driving from Western Australia to New South Wales with all her possessions in the car prior to moving into a new house, and a couple from Germany – we swapped a few travel stories and had an interesting talk.
It was cold in the Grampians, with frosts at night, so in the morning I was shuffling around wrapped in my patoo. I adjourned to a small patch of sunlight on the terrace with tea and looked up at the cliffs behind the hostel. As the sun’s rays crept along them the forests covering the hillsides came alive with a chorus of cicadas. Kangaroos occasionally hopped past on their way to the sports ground, which seemed to be their local hangout – in the evening there were two dozen on there, grazing just as rabbits would in the UK. They were extraordinarily tame as well – we could approach to within a few feet without bothering them in the least.
After breakfast we decided to head up to the Wonderland car park on the road leading into the park, and see what walks we could take from there. A signpost advertised that there was a track to the Pinnacles, 2.7km distant, so we set off up the hill. There was the usual business of stripping off layers a few hundred metres up the hill, and the weather changed every few minutes – first hot sunshine, then a sudden downpour followed by a brisk wind, then sunshine again. The surrounding rock formations looked prehistoric – fantastic sculptures like rows of faces or the vertebrae of some long-extinct creature.
We continued upwards over bare rock, passing a waterfall whose strands were like silvery tinsel twisting and turning as they fell, against the red ochre of the rock behind. Reaching a gully whose jagged sides towered overhead we ascended a set of wooden steps and picked up the trail once more, marked by small yellow arrows, each just visible from the previous one. A couple of times we lost the path, but by following the most likely course we soon picked it up again. Soon the pinnacles that had dotted the landscape were all below us bar one, which was where we were headed – the summit. At a small scramble we met an elderly couple who were struggling – she was in hiking boots and skipped on ahead, but he had on leather lace up shoes and struggled for grip. I loitered nearby in Outward Bound mode, ready to lend a hand if needed. “It’s just traction,” I said. “It’s a tricky surface if you haven’t got much grip on your shoes.”
“The shoes are perfectly fine,” he said rather crossly. His wife looked at me and rolled her eyes, as if to say: “I’ve told him and I’ve told him. But will he listen?” Well he wouldn’t listen to me either, so we went on ahead. At the actual summit a fence rail led out onto a small viewing platform, occupied by a school group who looked miserably cold. A chill wind was whipping over the summit and a fine drizzle began. But the view was spectacular. We looked down upon the valley in which Halls Gap lay, nestled in a strip of lush green upon which fell a few rays of watery sunshine. Off to the right were the cold grey waters of a dam. The school group moved off a few yards, seeking shelter in the lee of a large boulder to eat their sandwiches, and we took their place on the platform.
After a few moments a crotchety voice said from behind us: “Look! There’s more of these blasted padlocks!” It was the elderly man. Looking down I saw three small padlocks attached to the fencing wire, as couples are wont to do to somehow consolidate their relationship. “There’s a bridge in Paris which is on the point of collapse because of this sort of thing!” he said, sounding outraged.
I wondered whether he had noticed the view, and said: “Oh look – there’s the visitor centre with the one way system. Way over there.”
He snorted. “It”s ridiculous. I never bother with it – I just go the wrong way.”