Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Great Ocean Road

I passed right by the cliffs of the Nullarbor Plain. But the Southern Ocean carves breathtaking shorelines all along the coast of Australia, so it's not like they were the last of the sweeping scenery. The Great Ocean Road runs between Adelaide and Melbourne, and it's a tourist trek on the order of Route 1 along the Pacific Coast of California.

A view from a random pulloff. Scenes of this caliber went on for miles.
I'd argue the GOR is even more beautiful. There are dramatic cliffs, sheltered coves, headlands, and many stunning beaches. While the road is windy and harrowing and crammed with Chinese tour buses, the stops are so plentiful and spaced-out that you can always find a perfect spot all to yourself.

The Twelve Apostles, the most famous sets of sea stacks
The Grotto
An unnamed collection of islands

Eventually, I had to give up stopping for scenery and just drive. If you got out at every dramatic overlook, at every pristine beach, at every adorable resort village, you'd never leave.

The GOR also winds its way through the rumpled Otway Mountains, which are covered in dense eucalyptus forest. I chose a camping spot in a crook of the mountains. On the way in, I had the place entirely to myself, including a beautiful "private" beach with some of the weirdest rock formations and best tidepools I've ever seen.

The campground filled up with Germans as evening came on. Australia is packed with German tourists.
Spooky-looking eucalyptus forests. Full of colorful parrots and cockatoos.
A rocky bay with beach

The honeycombed rocks were full of tiny snails.

Some of the best, most unusual, and most colorful seashells, too.
After setting up my tent, I was about to make my way down to the beach when another truck pulled up. A guy with a backpack hopped out and immediately disappeared down the path. There's a multi-day hiking trail all along the Great Ocean Road, so I figured he was headed off for a "bushwalk."

When I got down to the beach, I stumbled upon the same guy, now with headphones on, having a serious solo dance-off with the waves. At first, I backed off, knowing how I'd feel if someone walked in on me groovin' with the universe. But the dude waved and just kept on rockin' while I hopped around the rocks and watched the surf. Eventually, we said hello and had one of the easygoing, travel-story conversations that seem like second nature to Australians.

Australians are a well-traveled bunch. Just about everyone has been to the States, and usually through much of Asia as well. This guy, Cameron, had been to the Bay Area for a UFO convention (presumably, not of them), but he'd also worked in Papua New Guinea as a geologist, and now he lived in a little off-the-grid spot just outside the national park. He made the standard friendly Australian offer for me to stop by and visit. I thanked him, but I usually think of these invitations as hypothetical. I'm generally not the type to drop in on someone I don't know well.

The next day, I got up early and went on a short hike on a section of the GOR trail. What started as clouds and sprinkles eventually turned to a steady downpour. Eventually, I gave up, and went back to the Princess to dry off. Rain pounded down, and looked like it wasn't going to let up for the rest of the day. On about my third deal of solitaire, Cameron drove up again to check on me, and said he was about to light up his wood stove. This time, I was eager to take up the offer.

He had a cool little hippie joint in the hills, run on wind and solar, and covered in homemade art. He was a kook, but perfectly friendly, and we chatted about yoga and music and whatnot, and he gave me the address of a friend who had a guest house in an area I plan to pass through between Melbourne and Sidney. By evening, the rain quit, and I headed back to camp, grateful for the break.

The next day was nicer, though it had turned chilly, and I wandered to various spots in the national park. I went through one rainforest walk covered in moss and tree ferns.

I also took Princess on a tour along some mountain roads that my guidebook recommended. After a few kilometers, the dirt road became a track. In a few more, the track became a swamp, washed out by yesterday's rain. It was too narrow and forested to turn the Princess around. So for once, halfway through the trip, I actually put the gal in 4-wheel-drive, and we blazed through the mud, no problem. Now I can say I didn't waste the expense of the 4x4 rental.

After dark, I returned to another rainforest nature walk. Following signs by headlamp, people stopped at a spot where a trickling river carved steep banks into moss-covered rocks. We turned off our flashlights, and a constellation of blue glow-worms appeared. They looked like little fairies. (Far too dim for photographing, unfortunately.)

At some point, my camera got sand in the lens and gave up the ghost. Most of the above are cell-phone photos; I'll have to get a new (new) camera in Melbourne, where I am now. Melbourne is the Brooklyn of the Southern Hemisphere, vegan cronuts and all. I'll report from there next.

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