Sometimes Mother Nature reminds you who is boss. And more often than not, she wins.
And so, seemingly running for my life away from a giant wall of water that was bearing down on me, I suddenly felt very small. As I’m running, my friends on the beach are laughing and pointing. I glance behind me, and the backwash is swirling upon itself, building into a huge blue and white frothing mountain, getting ever closer to my heels.
To my right, a French guy has already been consumed by the watery mass charging at the shore, his feet disappearing into the froth. By now, a huge wave has formed, about twice my height, and there’s nothing I can do to get out of the way.
Whooosh. I’m dumped down to the hard, gritty beach and within seconds, I’m washed up like a ragdoll at the feet of my friend Jess. We all laugh, I get up, dust myself off and run back down towards the sea. The process repeats itself all over again, and I love it.
We’re at Bells Beach, part of the famous Great Ocean Road area and home to the Ripcurl Pro Surfing Championship, such is the quality of waves that pound the beach here. It was the end of a brilliant day of getting out of Ballarat and seeing a bit more of Victoria.
I’ve been in Ballarat for a couple of weeks now, settling into a routine of waking up, doing some housework for Nat, having lunch together when she returns home for her break and then being dropped off in town for the afternoon as I go in search of places with decent internet. Not that there are any – if there’s one thing I have now realised, it is that this country’s internet seems light years behind every other country I have been to so far.
Very few places have free Wifi, apparently due to few companies offering unlimited data deals to businesses, and when you do find one of those that do offer some form of internet, the quality is usually slow and poor. Take McDonalds, where in return for a dollar cheeseburger, I can sit and use the internet. Except its painfully slow and only offers a 50 megabyte limit – no good for trying to upload countless photos and blogs over the next few months.
Thankfully I found a bar called Seymours, which not only provided some of the least temperamental wifi I’ve found here so far, but also serves a mean lemon lime and bitters (the addiction is still going strong) and it’s a relaxed place to hang out and work my way through a blog backlog.
While Nat has been at work, I’ve also been spending a lot of time with her best friend Jess, her 12-year-old daughter Liv and friend James. It was on one of our trips out together that I found another way to occupy my time in Ballarat. Jess was treating me to coffee at a great little restaurant and bar called The Lake View, which, funnily enough, has a great location overlooking Lake Wendouree.
While we were enjoying a latte, Jess began speaking to the owner and manager, Nathan, who she knows. Suddenly she asked if he needed any help around the place, and then pointed straight at me. That’s when he asked what experience I had and asked if I could come in the following week for a shift. I agreed – it would be great to do a bit of hospitality work again, even if it is just for a few hours.
There was a catch though – in order to lift a finger in the restaurant, I had to complete a compulsory course. Whether I was volunteering or working full time, anyone in Australia who serves alcohol has to complete an RSA, the Responsible Service of Alcohol certificate. It meant a trip back to Melbourne where I had found the course for $40, and so caught an early morning train to the city.
I made my way on the tram to a training centre to the east of the city, and took my place in a lecture room. In a nutshell, the course taught me all about how to spot if someone has had too much to drink, how to deal with intoxicated customers, how to avoid conflict and the Australian laws and regulations when it comes to legally serving the amber nectar.
As a result, I learnt how the state of Victoria is currently home to 13,000 people seeking treatment for alcoholism, how more than 3,000 people died of alcohol-related injuries between 2009-2010, and how the drink-drive limit is surprisingly lenient compared to the UK. A basic rule of thumb is you’re allowed one alcoholic drink an hour before getting into a car. Far from scientific.
After being awarded my certificate, I got talking to a girl called Esther. We spoke about our travels and the work she was doing, when she told me there was an upcoming music festival that desperately needed more workers. In return, you got into the festival, but also got a bit of pocket money too. It sounded like a great thing to do, so I put my contact details into her phone, and that night I got an email from her, along with contact details for the staffing manager at the festival.
A quick email later, and I had myself a place working on a bar at the Soundwave Festival in a few days time. It was in Melbourne, with acts such as Slipknot and Queens of the Stone Age topping the bill. It’s a bit heavy for my liking, but after working at and reporting on quite a few Leeds Festivals over the years, I know it will have a great atmosphere either way. It will be yet another experience to take home with me, and already I’m looking forward to it.
Back in Ballarat, it was pancake day, and I took the opportunity to cook for Nat. I put my newly acquired Thai cooking skills to the test, with a delicious meal of Chicken with Cashews that seemed to go down a storm. Surprisingly, it tasted exactly the same as the one I made at the Thai cooking school in Koh Lanta a few weeks back, and Nat wants me to make it again sometime. It was followed by some pancake fun in the kitchen, and introducing Nat to the all time favourite topping of lemon and sugar. Its not a big combo in Australia, but I think she liked it!
And so, with a weekend of scorching hot sun upon us, we agreed to go see a bit of Victoria. We jumped into Jess’s car and headed to the beach, stopping first at Torquay.
Jess’s mum has a house there, so we parked up and headed to the sea. With temperatures reaching above 40-degrees, the sand was red hot. It made the walk to the sea more of a sprint, and even though the ocean was freezing cold, it was very welcome to cool off by the time we reached it. Perhaps the highlight was making a 12-year-old believe she was being chased by a shark, which sounds a little cruel. Infact, it was very cruel, but it was incredibly funny too. James had simply shouted “Liv, is that a dolphin fin,” which then produced one of the most blood-curdling screams of terror I’ve ever heard, followed by some speed swimming that any Olympian would be proud of.
Thankfully, she saw the funny side – eventually – after a comforting hug from mum, and there were more smiles when the chip shop nearby failed to charge us for half of the food we ordered for lunch.
After lashings of chips, cheese and gravy, followed by chicken baguettes all round, we headed to Split Point Lighthouse and officially began driving along the famous Great Ocean Road. Its actually a fairly famous lighthouse, immaculately looked after and maintained, standing out like a bright white beacon against the deep blue cloudless sky.
For anyone who remembers the childrens show Round the Twist from years back, it’s the lighthouse that was used in the show. Its also appeared in other films and series, mainly due to the beautifully picturesque setting it finds itself in.
Located high above rocks and cliffs, the waves below crash all around, while there are stunning beaches everywhere you look on the horizon. We spent a good half an hour taking in the views together, and I made a mental note to return here with my friends in a few weeks time.
The next stop was Bells Beach, a place where James had been raving about and was getting him slightly excited as we got nearer. We soon found out why.
From a viewpoint high above the beach, we watched as huge waves rolled in from the ocean and crashed onto the sand. In the midst of the white surf below, small figures were leaping over the waves and being washed up onto the sand. Surfers were bobbing around on the swell, waiting for another roller ride to shore on, while others were simply watching in awe at the sheer power of nature.
James and Nat walked down to the beach and before long, James couldn’t resist the urge of jumping into the foaming mass himself. The rest of us walked down the remaining steps and watched for a while. I must admit, while slightly dangerous thanks to numerous rip tides bubbling away, it did look like a lot of fun. James had already got a few grazes from being rolled along the gritty sand by a few waves, and soon a huge wave crashed to shore, sending water far, far up the beach.
As it swirled around my feet, I could feel the power of the wave pushing against me, swiftly followed by the strong pull of the water as it rushed back down the steep beach and back into the sea. It wasn’t long before the t-shirt was off and I was nervously bounding down towards the water with James.
Its probably one of the most exhilarating things I’ve done on my trip, launching myself into the biggest waves I have ever seen and not knowing exactly when I would see the surface again. I admit, it was pretty daunting to see each wave rapidly growing behind me, and there were a few times when I wondered whether I’d pushed it too far, but there were a few others doing the same, and everyone else had huge smiles on their faces.
It did feel a bit like being slid along the roughest side of a cheese grater when the wave washed you along the sand and dumped you onto the shore, but there was something slightly addictive about it. The gravel rash would heal, but the memories would stay with us all.
After a brief stop in Torquay for ice creams, we headed off back to Ballarat. Our shorts – and various parts of our bodies – were full of sand, the ice creams had dripped everywhere in the heat and there were varying degrees of dehydration, but it had been a fantastic introduction to the Great Ocean Road, and a sign of yet more great times to come in Australia.