I had a vitally important job to do before the arrival of Matt and Siobhan into Ballarat – a large chunk of birthday shopping.
Matt had messaged me on Twitter a week or so ago that he was relying on me to go out and buy a selection of pressies for Siobhan, who celebrates her 30th birthday while she’s away. He was unable to sneak away to buy some surprise gifts, so I was more than happy to help him out.
On top of the list? A cuddly wombat. Apparently, Siobhan had her heart set on seeing wombats in Oz, and after a planned visit to an animal centre in Sydney failed to deliver the goods of a cuddle with one, Matt was needing anything wombat-related.
Thankfully, my friend Jess knew exactly where to take me, and after a short ride I was at a Ballarat nature centre, complete with a shop selling all manner of wombat related goods.
Back home, it was time for a bit of frantic wrapping before the pair of them arrived at about 3.30pm. It was strange to see them pulling up outside Nat’s house, which until now had seemed so far away from my life back home. Now, as I welcomed them inside, it was almost as if they had just popped round the corner to see me. I put the kettle on, got some chairs set up outside and made toasted sandwiches all round, which went down well in the autumnal sun.
It still doesn’t feel real to have Matt and Siobhan here with me, although at the same time, it almost feels normal. For almost six months, my life back home has been on hold, and feels so distant from the exciting life I’ve been leading on the road and from the almost mini life I’ve made for myself in Ballarat, with my own group of friends and way of life here. Yet suddenly I was talking about everything that was so familiar to me – everyday life in Hull, the latest goings on at Look North, the latest with the job cutbacks at the BBC, the mini baby boom that has suddenly happened in the office since I left… it was great to hear about everyone back home, and a reminder that in the not too distant future, I too will be back in the office and making the daily trips around Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.
In the meantime, we had a road trip to enjoy. With my belongings loaded into the campervan that Matt and Siobhan had hired, I jumped into the front and Siobhan drove under my directions to a nearby Coles supermarket so we could stock up for a week of camping on the Great Ocean Road.
We piled in a whole load of things to barbecue – chicken fillets, burgers and sausages, while Siobhan made sure we had a few greens too. I threw in some cheese-filled meatballs that I have discovered go really well with pasta and sauce, and after a stop by the milk aisle, it was on to the bottle shop where the real essentials were brought onboard…the beer and wine.
We were soon on the road and heading to Torquay, the starting point of the Great Ocean Road and our first night stop. We pulled in at the Torquay Holiday Park, where it cost us $43 for a powered pitch for the night. We hooked up the camper, had a brew and pondered what to do for the night. It turned out that Siobhan, despite only being in Australia for a week, had become hooked on the My Kitchen Rules television programme, a kind of cross between Masterchef and Come Dine With Me.
I must admit, it has become a habit for me to watch too, and Nat and I would often spend an hour catching up on it and laughing at some of the strange meals the contestants would attempt to cook. There was a television in the barbecue area, so with bangers on the go and MKR on the television, the entertainment was sorted.
With a busy day ahead, it was an early night as I settled into my tent and got tucked into my sleeping bag. Except it wasn’t my sleeping bag. Confession time – a few weeks ago, as Siobhan was clearly preparing for her trip, I got a message from her on Skype:
“Hey, weird question…my sleeping bag in a grey carrier was accidentally left at your house – do you happen to know of its still there? Did you put it in your room before you left? Last place I saw it was on the landing outside Matt’s room 😥 ”
Now, for those who haven’t been reading my blog from the beginning, the day when I left Hull was slightly hectic, and as I hurriedly packed seven months-worth of belongings into a bag, I had trouble finding my own red sleeping bag. What I did find, however, was a red sleeping bag in a grey carrier. With just a few hours before my train, I presumed somehow my sleeping bag had been taken by Matt by mistake – and so the only option was to take the remaining sleeping bag. Besides, it was far better than mine anyway, its bulkyness stood my big bag up perfectly, and surely someone would have said if it was theirs by now?
This was my reply: “Hello you…good news and bad news. Good news is…I know where your sleeping bag is. Bad news is….it’s on the other side of the world, attached to my backpack!”
Siobhan did give me points for honesty, but I’d have been a bit annoyed, and I admit I felt a little guilty. However, it was now keeping me warm as I laid in the tent, listening to all manner of wildlife on the outside. And, with a thin cushion bed, I listened to the wildlife for hours. When I did finally get to sleep, it was just a few hours before all manner of birds decided it was already time to wake up. My lack of sleep provided Matt and Siobhan with some humour in the morning as I greeted them with this sight.
There was some other drama aside from my scrunched up face too. Having spent the night outside in the Australian countryside, a place full of some of the worlds most delightful insects and creepy crawlies that can kill a human within minutes of the merest prod of their fangs, there was a bit of a shock as I delved into my rucksack. As I reached down for a pair of boxers, I noticed the glint of a shiny black spider as it wandered across the back of my hand. Needless to say, my hand didn’t stay in the bag for long.
I told Matt. “What? In the bag that’s been in the camper all night? Whatever you do, don’t tell Siobhan.”
There was then a secret mission between us as I moved to the barbecue area with a solid and clean floor to empty the entire contents of my backpack bit-by-bit onto the ground in search of the eight-legged invader.
Eventually, he was located. He didn’t look too poisonous, but then again I was surprised by how normal the bad ones look when I saw my first venomous spider here so far, a white tail.
With said spider on his way for cover under a barbecue, and after a bowl of Aussie Weet-Bix all round, we turned out of the caravan park and onto the main road towards Bells Beach.
I’ve been looking forward to taking them both to this stretch of the coastline after my hugely enjoyable visit with my Ballarat friends a few weeks ago, where I’d tried my hand at body surfing in the huge waves. Sadly, the waves were not quite as impressive as they were back then, but still incredible to watch as scores of surfers hit the swell in preparation for the Ripcurl Surf Championships in a weeks time.
Infact, many of the grandstands and commentary positions are already in place, with teams of workers busily erecting stands and office blocks on the car park while the guys with the boards perfected catching the waves out in the ocean.
We spent a good hour up on the cliffs and down on the beach, watching as wave after wave crashed onto the shore. It was nowhere near as hot as last time I was here, but thankfully the sun was out. It was windy, but that just added to the atmosphere as we took in the vast horizon of the Southern Ocean, knowing that the next landmass is Antarctica.
We headed off along the coast to Lorne, but stopping off at a particularly famous lighthouse at Aireys Inlet – the one that starred in the Aussie kids television show Round the Twist. It provided a comedy photo moment, while Matt managed to fall over while trying to get a snap of Siobhan. She gave me a knowing look and a roll of the eyes.
Next stop was Lorne, where we had originally planned to spend the night, but the weather had turned and the wind had blown in plenty of clouds. In need of some lunch, I texted my mate James back in Ballarat with an SOS for a decent feed, and he more than delivered the goods.
“The bakery does a really good lamb and rosemary pie,” he texted back.
Now, when it comes to pies, Siobhan and I are huge fans, and it didn’t take much in the way of a decision before we found ourselves heading down the road and sniffing out a pie. It was true, they were particularly good pies, and my beef and burgundy more than hit the spot.
Over lunch, with no sign of the cloud clearing and with little to do in Lorne apart from look at waves crashing onto a beach, we decided to head to Apollo Bay, a route which took us on one of the most spectacular drives in the world.
The Great Ocean Road is actually classed as the world’s largest war memorial. Surprisingly, it was built by soldiers who had returned from conflict in the First World War. They needed employment, and they also wanted to build a memorial to those who had fallen. Along the southern coast of Victoria, just a hard, rocky and almost impassable track joined the few communities hardy enough to survive in what was then a dangerous and inaccessible coastline. It wasn’t just the locals who struggled either – offshore reefs, rocky outcrops and rough seas earned the whole area the affectionate nickname of Shipwreck Coast, thanks to the high number of vessels lost to the ocean here.
So as well as a huge memorial, the road would become a vital link between the isolated communities, bringing benefits to the timber and forestry industries as well as bringing tourism to the south coast of Australia. Work on the road began in 1919, with around 3,000 returning servicemen finding work on the construction project. Conditions were still tough though, with dense bush to work through, cliffs to navigate and steep coastal mountains to work through or around. The construction was mostly down to hard graft- picks and shovels, explosives and small machinery. Many died due to falls or construction injury.
Infact, as I researched the road and its origins, I couldn’t help but think back to my time in Thailand on the Death Railway, the route constructed by Australian and Allied prisoners of war during the Second World War, just a few years after the Great Ocean Road was finished. With much of the road set on clifftops and mountains, the rock was largely chiselled and blown away by hand and explosives, much the same way as Hells Pass was made near Burma. Admittedly, that was through forced labour, and there were no Japanese soldiers waiting to beat the Aussie war vets as they made their memorial on the Victoria coast, but tough all the same.
A lighter story I picked up though happened in 1924, when the steamboat Casino managed to get stranded near Cape Patton after hitting a reef. In order to free itself, it was forced to make itself lighter by throwing items overboard. Those items included 500 barrels of beer and 120 cases of spirits, most of which ended up coming ashore right near where the workers were busily building the road. It apparently resulted in an unscheduled two-week-long drinking break – now that would have been one hell of a hangover when the dynamite started blowing again!
After 13 years of work, the Great Ocean Road was completed, and when you drive along the work of all those soldiers, you can see just why they thought it a fitting tribute to those who never returned to Australian shores. It offers almost everything that is good about the country – rainforests, huge expansive views of the Ocean, a formidable horizon, huge open skies, dense bush, an incredible amount of wildlife. Beautiful scenery as far as the eye can see, with each twist and turn of the road prompting another deep intake of breath. For once it wasn’t Matt’s driving – just fabulous vistas that are simply stunning.
We made a few stops off the road along the way, with the dark looming skies providing drama in the photos of waves as they crash onto rocks. Galahs and cockatoos were flying around, squawking and making a noise. Road signs warned of countless different animals, and we passed smiling couples walking on the road, looking up into the eucalyptus trees for koalas.
With dark clouds gathering, we spent the night at Apollo Bay, catching up over cups of tea and glasses of Aussie wine.
The following morning the weather had changed. The sun was out, the temperature was rising and it promised to be an excellent day for visiting perhaps the most famous part of the Great Ocean Road, the Twelve Apostles.
First, however, we decided to track back along the road we’d come along in search of koalas. They are incredibly hard to spot, but we’d found out there was a huge area we’d driven through where they are easy to find at Kennett River. We were keen for breakfast with a view too – the beauty of having a campervan means you can have the perfect scenic spot for something to eat or drink, and at a beach near the river, we ate boiled eggs on toast whilst watching surfers of all ages trying their luck on the waves.
Siobhan went in search of koalas at a nearby campsite, and came back with a huge smile on her face after seeing two. Matt and I went for our own look, and soon came across one chilling out in the sun amid the branches
after a hearty meal of leaves. We walked further to come across a whole range of colourful birds that would land on our heads and arms in search of food. Next to our hungry feathered friends, another koala was climbing around on a tree. It was fantastic to see a koala in the wild after keeping my eyes peeled for so long out in the bush – I’d started to think koalas were just a huge hoax by the Aussies to get you to visit, sticking a few in zoos around the world, in the hope people would come to the country in the hope of seeing the cute furrballs. I’ve been warned they are far from cuddly though, so I kept my distance!
Back on the road, our main destination was the Twelve Apostles, and we headed straight there, stopping only after hawkeye Siobhan spotted an echidna – a huge hedgehog-type thing – waddling around by the roadside. It prompted an immediate u-turn, but despite our best efforts to add him to our animal photo gallery, he took refuge in a drainage pipe. I quite liked the silhouette effect anyway…
We arrived at the famous coastline in the mid afternoon, the sun beating down on us although the strong breeze from the magnificent Southern Ocean kept everyone cooled down. Sadly, the sun was also in the wrong place for us to get really clear photographs of the limestone stacks, but we spent an hour wandering around the walkways and taking in the spectacular views. There were scores of people there from all around the world, many of whom had also parked up their campervan in the car park to tick this must-see formation off the list. Overhead, helicopters were buzzing around giving the richer punters a sight to remember.
It’s a strong reminder of how powerful nature can be – the stacks have been formed over the years by the powerful waves eroding the coastline. They would have all started out as caves, then into arches before the ocean took a further toll by causing the arch to collapse.
It’s left a series of stacks, some of which have recently collapsed into the sea, but its still an impressive sight to see them jutting out into the water. When you seen how hard some of the waves hit them – bearing in mind the ocean was relatively calm – it can leave you wondering how they have stood for as long as they have anyway. But then you realise that where the sea crashes onto the shore now was once land that has long been eroded away.
After Siobhan made cheese sandwiches all round back at the campervan, we headed further along the road that hugs the shipwreck coast, stopping for icecreams and coffee in Port Campbell before pulling off the end of the Great Ocean Road and into Port Fairy, where we were to spend the night.
It was my turn to cook. And it was also the grand final of My Kitchen Rules. With the night’s entertainment sorted (the television programme, not watching my attempts at cooking) Siobhan lit the woodburning stove and we sat well into the night drinking wine and watching the television in the camp kitchen.
The wind picked up in the evening, and Matt returned from a visit to the camper to let me know my tent had been blown to bits. After a bit of shuffling it around, I spent a large part of the night listening to the gale and watching as it threatened to rip the cover off my tent once again. It was pretty chilly too, and I tried, largely unsuccessfully, to get to sleep wrapped in a sleeping bag, fully clothed, wearing a hoody and my outdoor jacket.
I awoke in the morning to hear Coldplay’s ‘Paradise’ playing in the neighbouring camper. Oh, the irony.