Saturday, June 28, 2008

getting high in a rain forest

A short detour off the Great Ocean Road is the Otway temperate rain forest gully, the most westerly temperate rain forest in Australia. It receives an average of 2 metres rainfall per annum. The Otway Fly is a steel walkway 600m long and 25m above ground so you can walk in the top of the canopy.

Very impressive to be so high up,and rather alarming as the tree tops sway and the whole walkway does the same. The 24m cantilever platform at the end, with no visible means of support was terrifying.

Below Ness adopts the 'vertigo stance'

great ocean road

We have spent the last 2 days travelling along the Great Ocean Road which runs for 241 km from Torquay to Allansford and is the most visited area in the state of Victoria. It is considered one of the world's most breathtaking scenic routes and is also the world's longest war memorial.

Construction began in 1919, the workforce being returned soldiers from World War One , and the first stage from Anglesea to Apollo Bay was opened in 1932. Almost 3000 returned soldiers worked on the construction of the Great Ocean Road during the 13 years of construction. They lived in camps set up in the bush. The taxing nature of the work meant a high turnover of workers, and officials were not always happy with their efforts. Some Diggers reckoned things were easier on the battle front, while other rejected criticism of their progress on the basis they were told that, after serving their country so valiantly, they could work at their own pace on this project.

The memories of war were probably never that far away. Three places on the road between Apollo Bay and Lorne, Shrapnel Gully,Sausage Gully, and Artillery Rocks are named after places at Gallipoli.

They received 10 shillings and sixpence for an eight-hour day and worked a half-day on Saturdays. Each soldier had a tent, there was a dining marquee and a kitchen. The men paid up to 10 shillings a week for their food.

A pretty amazing road it is too, many stretches so close to the road the breakers wash over it- a surfer's paradise even on a cold winter's day.

It feels very like I imagine travelling Route 1 from LA to San Francisco, a journey to be made in a red Mustang convertible wearing designer shades and listening to 'California Dreaming'. Not entirely sure that driving a Winnebago, wearing a woolly hat and listening to Kylie is quite as sexy but the ocean certainly is.

Friday, June 27, 2008

yarra valley

Using Melbourne as a base we headed north to the Yarra Valley in the Dandenong Ranges as the wine cellar was seriously depleted. The ranges are full of mountain ash, the tallest flowering plant in the world.

The valley claims to be the first region to start viticulture in Australia back in 1838, reaching a peak in 1881 before going into a decline and closing down totally in 1921. A revival started in the 1980's and now boasts the second largest area under vine in Victoria.

The Winnebago stocked with chardonnay and pinot noir rose we stopped at the Healesville animal sanctuary which has an excellent veterinary hospital dedicated to treating injured native wildlife. I was very tempted by the set up and the thought of cuddling wombats for a living. The circular building is one of the most attractive vet facilities I have seen.

The raptor display was well worth the visit, particularly a ginger falcon called james who was not as compliant as the other birds and did what he wanted in his own time, obviously a ginger creature trait.
The barking owl ( below) is a splendid bird.

Then headed off west to Geelong en route to the Great Ocean Road. This is Victoria's second city and the waterfront is being transformed, and we liked it a lot. Geelong Council commissioned artist Jan Mitchell to create something out of old 2 metre high wooden pier pylons and there are now over 100 quirky brightly painted statues in the Victorian naughty postcard style.

They made me think of the Hall of Bright Carvings in Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan novel.... Rottcod the Guardian dusting down and hauling out a few specimens for display. It was a bright and sunny day and the whole place felt extremely cheery.

Slightly disappointing post office though.


Arrived in Melbourne a few days ago and took up the offer to stay with a guy we met while camping. The appeal of a house and the free use of a washing machine was overwhelming, as the most difficult task in a van when it is cold and wet and many layers are being worn is drying laundry.

He took us for a night drive around the city which was great even though he was an unusual tour guide- men who work in the cast concrete industry seem to take a great pride in their work so we had to look at many concrete buildings and admire the craftsmanship of acid washed blocks.

We decided after the tour that driving the large van around the city would be suicidal insanity- too many trams, narrow lanes, height restriction bridges and the bizarre unique to Melbourne 'hook turn'. This involves turning right from the left lane and despite a demo or two seemed utterly incomprehensible and rather dangerous.

Click on the link below to play hook turns:

Also we learned that accepting gifts from strangers always has a price, and our host proceeded to spend the next two days relating in excruciating detail his life history from the post car crash coma at 17 years old through to his acrimonious split with his ex and the ensuing custody battles for his 3 year old ( the family law courts have fine examples of pre cast concrete detailing). He was a text book case of why bipolar sufferers should not stop taking their meds.In a kind and caring way we made our excuses and ran away.

We trundled along the coast and got as close to the city as we dared in the van. The beach huts at Brighton are funky.

Caught up with Georgie's sister and her partner while we were passing through and it was a relief to spend time with stable people!

Sunday, June 22, 2008


Continuing west slowly towards Melbourne, weather wet and windy.

Went to Phillip Island, a small island south of Melbourne reachable by bridge, because it is the only place in Australia where little penguins nest in large numbers. The 3 main towns on the island are Cowes, Newhaven and Rhyll. It would be tricky to visit all 3 UK namesakes within a couple of hours of each other.

The little penguin, not unsurprisingly, is the smallest penguin in the world at 30 cm tall and approx 1 kg body weight, and nests in hillside burrows. The nightly landing has become a major tourist attraction which is a shame in one respect but at least it guarantees the habitat remains secure and safe.

The viewing platforms are all on elevated wooden boardwalks so the penguins can walk underneath or around to access their burrows, and the area is closed off after dark apart from admittance to the paying viewers. No photography is permitted.

So we sat on a wooden bench in the driving rain and waited until dark, and little white blobs sparkling in the moonlight started to appear in the surf and congregate on the beach until there were sufficient numbers to make the long trundle across the sand, under the boardwalks and up the hills to their burrows.

They squeak and pip and chirrup to each other as they poddle along past the viewers, stopping to preen and oil themselves. There were approx 250 arrivals over about half an hour. In the summer the numbers can be 4-5 times this.

Apparently they will spend 2-3 weeks in the winter out at sea pilchard hunting before returning to clean out their burrows, catch up with their spouses and mates and generally socialise underground for a day or two before returning to sea.

To be so close to them observing the spectacle was inspirational.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Have been continuing along the coast, and today ended up at Wilson's Promontory National Park. This is the southernmost tip of mainland Australia and the promontory covers over 50,000 hectares with an amazing combination of mountains, great beaches and rainforest gullies.

Being a National Park we had to sneak james dog in. We have a fine-tuned technique of Ness stuffing her full of food while I pay the entry fee at the park entrance. Today was a doddle as there was a height restriction so we had to park the van up while I paid so I sauntered up to the lady in the booth ( my best ' I do not own a dog or have one with me saunter' ) and paid the entry while Ness sneaked through the slip road in the van.

The main reason for the visit was the promise of wombat sightings and we were lucky enough to spend some time watching them. They are possibly cuter than koala.

Monday, June 16, 2008

trouble in paradise

We camped on the edge of Paradise Beach yesterday, yet another stretch of ninety mile beach ( the world's 3rd longest uninterrupted beach) . Great for dog walking so we elected to stay another night and Ness decided to reposition the van for maximum sunlight. On the list of things I dislike about the beach I forgot to mention sand- filthy stuff gets everywhere. When attempting a 3 point turn in a 4 tonne van on sand problems occur, and she buried it good and proper. A few frustrated wheel spins later and 70% of the 4 back wheels were completely underground.

We have been meaning to buy a tow rope for some time now but never managed to get round to it, but we did buy a shovel last week so we set to digging in the sand to expose the wheels then used all our rubber matting for traction. Proceeded to spray ourselves with sand as we entrenched the wheels deeper and deeper.

Fortunately Ness can still pull off the blond bimbo in distress act and found 2 blokes with a tow rope and a 4-wheel drive. They were not convinced that they would succeed ( especially when we discovered that when the kangaroo bars were fitted to the front bumper the tow hook was removed) but with a bit more digging and some manful towing we were pulled free.

We are still here, parked up on firmer ground, and suffering the humiliation of being told by old duffers in caravans ( speaking slowly so that we can understand ) that the Winnebago is very heavy and sand is very soft.

I am so glad that it was Ness and not me who grounded us. I have been accused of excessive smirking all day.

wattle point

Left Paynesville and headed out to Wattle Point, a headland overlooking Lake Victoria. There was nobody around so we had a peaceful night on the lake shore.

The forest was full of large yellow winged black cockatoos which are huge birds ( 60 cm ) and we saw 10 of them sitting in a post forest fire blackened banksia tree but they are not as bold as the sulphur crested and kept well away from us when we tried to sneak up on them.

Stopped off to look at the oldest swing bridge in Australia, built in 1883 to allow tall boats to enter the port of Sale, the bridge was turned manually on a system of cunning cogs and bearings. It has been restored and is swung open at weekends for tourists ( this was a weekday ) .

Poole Vic.

Moving west from Lake's Entrance we stopped at Bairnsdale because all the tourist brochures urged us to view the magnificent murals in St.Mary's church.

Francesco Floreani was a migrant who emigrated from Venice in 1927 and was working as a farm labourer picking peas when he was commissioned to start the paintings. I can only assume that his mother inadvisably encouraged his artistic talents, the town's population was extremely small, or he was a very gifted self-publicist because the 'muriels' were absolutely beastly. I doubt he would have found similar employment in his home town.

Flash photography was discouraged in case it faded the art work( a good thing if it did I reckon ), but we took a few sneaky pics.

He managed to spend a whole decade ( 1930's) in full time employment completing his work, there is not a square centimetre of the interior which has not been painted.....could have picked a lot of peas instead.

Metung, a small town on Lake Victoria was a brief stopover and it is a very pleasant place. Quite European looking, with well designed houses and apartments all with private boat moorings on the lake front. Great coffee shops and approximately 25% of all storefronts on the main street are estate agents which pretty much sums up the affluence of the area. We both separately came to the conclusion that it reminded us of Sandbanks near Poole in Dorset, a bit of a playground for the seriously wealthy.

We moved along the coast and camped in Paynesville where the town planners have had great fun creating a series of canals and marinas from the lake all interconnecting like a little Venice. Very well done and full of holiday lets and retirement mansions with boat moorings in your own back garden.

A 2 minute ferry trip across the lake is Raymond Island, which has housing along the lake and the rest is natural bush and koalas abound.Looks very odd to see them up trees in people's gardens. The island has also made the 'places we would like to live' shortlist.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

blackpool Vic.

The weather has become rather windy and wet, so it seemed like a good time to go underground and visit the limestone caves in Buchan. Had to smuggle james dog into the reserve and bribe her with edible treats while we did the cave tour- an impressive set of interconnecting caves with excellent calcite features.

The previous night we camped up on the side of a small road near Buchan in order to get to the caves early and the severe gale warning maybe should have been heeded a little more carefully. At 4 am we were woken by bits of tree crashing down onto the roof of a rocking van and we had to decide whether to move out into the open and risk being blown over or stay put and risk being crushed by a tree. The trees seemed a more immediate danger.

With the weather worsening and the winds still wild we kicked free camping into touch and opted for a caravan park the following night near Lake's Entrance. This is a seaside town which had about as much appeal as a damp October Sunday in Blackpool. Ness, being a Kiwi, gets all misty eyed whenever she glimpses the sea or gets a mild sniff of ozone but I must confess to not being a huge fan of seaside resorts.

Sitting on a rock overlooking a sandy bay watching whales is unbeatable, but the down side for me is that unavoidable buffer zone between sea and land which is universally shabby, dirty, packed with architectural carbuncles and oozing tackiness, and Lake's Entrance had the lot in spades. It should be beautiful, a town port adjacent to the point when three large lakes meet the sea, with a 90 mile sandy beach but it fails miserably.

However as we had decided that for our own safety we needed a caravan site for the night we were in the right place, with no shortage of Holiday Haven Lakeside Beachside Ocean View Tourist Holiday Village Resort options with alpine style chalets and classic spa cabins. We parked the van between 2 sturdy wood effect chalet style cabins and availed ourselves of the facilities- mains water, electricity, clean spacious hot showers and toilets that did not need manual emptying. First night in ages that we have been able to heat the van, it was heavenly.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

all creatures great and small

Now we are at the coast having followed the Snowy River until it enters the sea and have had our first views of the Bass Strait, the body of water between the mainland and Tasmania. Weather sunny and warm so great to give James dog a few long runs on the beach.

We camped in a large wooded site with a 150 metre track through a cutting in the trees and straight onto a sandy beach which we had all to ourselves.

The nightlife was incredible, as soon as night fell the possums were out in large numbers. We spent hours out in the forest with a torch spotting weird and wonderful marsupials. Saw our first ring tailed possum, a red and white creature with a long tail similar in appearance and agility to a squirrel.

The more common brush tailed possum was present in abundance, and they are certainly bold little devils. One climbed the ladder on the back on the van up onto the roof and kept peering in at us through the fanlight.

The area around Cape Conran has been involved in an intensive fox eradication programme and as a result many endangered ground dwelling marsupials are returning and populations increasing.
The long-footed potoroo and the southern brown bandicoot are being seen again in the region ( they are not found in many other parts of the country, and are most prevalent in this band of coast in Gippsland Victoria ).

We found a long-footed potoroo! They are about 1kg in weight with long snouts and dig under trees looking for fungi and small insects. He did not seem to notice us ( you can see how easy it would be for a fox to pick them off) and we watched him for about an hour digging about.
They look very like the brown bandicoot but apparently the tails are very different. Unfortunately this one had suffered an incident and had a scar where the tail should have been but we are pretty sure from its gait and colour that it was a potoroo.

We were going to travel a fair distance today, but called in at a small cove a few km from the campsite because we heard a rumour about whale sightings over the last few days. The main reason we are planning to follow the coast at this time of year is to try and catch the humpbacked, minke and southern right whales as they migrate to Queensland.

Within 5 minutes of arriving we saw our first humpbacked whales spouting very close to shore and spent the next couple of hours watching 6 or 7 giants breaching and playing in the bay. Not close enough for great pictures but with the binoculars we could see fantastic details.

So much for the travel plans-maybe we will manage a few more km tomorrow.

Ski fields to rare marsupials to whale watching in 5 days.
I love this country.

alpine heights

The ski season starts on the Queen's birthday, so we had a limited time frame to head south down the Great Alpine Road and climb Hotham Heights ( 1,862 metres) and through the ski fields before the snow started to fall.

It was quite a scary climb for the van, winding through the clouds and past all the signs warning not to pass beyond that point without snow chains ( forgot to pack them). When we started the climb it was 14 degrees, at the top it was 3 degrees and the Alpine Village was full of staff preparing for the start of the season. Views were limited due to the cloud cover.

We crossed Dinner Plain then camped half way down the south side of the mountain.The road to the camp ground was a steep dirt road and probably a little ambitious for the van, and all the signs warned 'dry weather use only'.We then lay awake for most of the night as the rain fell worrying about whether we would ever get up the slope again. We made a lucky escape and headed slowly down towards the coast.

Three days later and it was announced on the News tonight that heavy snow has fallen and the mountain awaits the first skiers.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

God bless the Queen

It is curretly a bank holiday weekend in Australia- the Queen's birthday weekend. Feel rather cheated that we never had he equivalent in the UK. The huge wine district of Rutherglen on the Murray has a large wine tasting festival over the weekend and the traffic cops pick victims up like lambs to the slaughter. Random breath tests are common and on all public holidays there is a 'double demerit' system for traffic offences so 2 offences and your licence is gone. I was stopped and tested for the first time yesterday, and typically it was after a rather long and heavy night sampling the local wine produce ( Nug Nug camp...see later ) but it was well into the afternoon and I passed fortunately.

Before leaving he Murray we stopped in Yackandandah ( mainly because of the marvellous name). It is yet another cute little gold mining outpost but the buildings in the main street were very well preserved.I think the guy who originally built the store pictured below had most bases covered.

Beechworth was a town we were particularly taken with, claiming to have the best bakery in Australia, although Ness the pie connoisseur felt the chunky steak pie was seriously over peppered. Despite the pie shortfall, it has achieved the status of being on the list of places we would like to live.

Over the bank holiday weekend we decided to find a decent camp and bed ourselves down- we grey nomads resent the roads being clogged up with selfish working people coming out to the countryside and enjoying themselves. We headed to Myrtleford, another town which started out as a stop on the cattle run then progressed to affluence when gold was discovered. Since the 1880's the rich alluvial flats of the Ovens River were used to grow hops and tobacco, and although the tobacco industry is no more the landscape is still covered with old tobacco kilns- in true Aussie style, you can knock down any building that you no longer want but God forbid that anyone should consider violating a shed!

We found a great campsite on the edge of Mount Buffalo National Park ( camp Nug Nug ) and set ourselves up. A lovely guy called Paul arrived with his camper trailer and set up next to us and we shared a fire, food and a few drinks. He had come up from Melbourne and some mates were joining him the next day.
By 10 am the next morning camp 'Thelma and Louise' ( Paul's name, and we rather liked it ) was surrounded.

The guys unloaded their trail bikes from trailers, set up their tents, chainsaws appeared from each vehicle, 4 wheel drives and trailers were dispatched for firewood. An hour later trees were unloaded, logs were sawed, axes were wielded and there was an enormous firewood mountain. I swear there was so much testosterone in the air you could have cut it with a knife.
Great bunch of people, mostly 1st generation Aussies from Croatia. These guys know how to drink and enjoy recreational pharmaceuticals. The shortage of cigarette papers was not a problem- a Guide to trout fishing appeared and 'smoked trout' will forever have a new meaning to Thelma and Louise.

We will be catching up with Paul when we hit Melbourne.

linga longa

We have been without internet access for the last few days since we hit the Alpine Road heading south towards Melbourne through the mountains.

We continued east along the Murray to Yarrawonga- despite the tourist information beseeching us to 'linga longa in Yarrawonga' we did not do so, it is quite a large town and apart from being on the edge of Lake Mulwala it does not have a lot going for it.

Spent a night at the Lake Hume dam which is the one responsible for the bizarre looking Lake Mulwala. One of the guys who worked there told us that it was currently at 11 % capacity and this season there will be no water allocated for irrigation in the Murray basin, and that it was being preserved for domestic use only, so I guess that no rice will flourish this year. The reason Mulwala looks particularly spooky is that the level was lowered by 2 metres in the summer due to water shortages.

While at the reservoir we spotted 4 sea eagles all drifting in the thermals above the water- apparently they are flourishing there and someone doing a long term study has reported 14 juveniles this summer. Quite incredible to see so many of the massive birds together.

Beechworth and Albury had particularly fine post offices.

Monday, June 2, 2008


We have left the Barmah forest with some reluctance, and are heading east along the Murray on the Victoria side. The weekend spent alone on the riverbank with the koala was fantastic, could have stayed for much longer.