Everybody needs good Neighbours

Rack off Bouncer!

Ramsay Street has seen some dramas in its time – and somehow I became involved in one.

While Kylie and Jason, Mrs Mangle and Bouncer the dog have lived out their lives on the famous street, within moments of arriving there, Matt, Siobhan and I found ourselves helping out the locals.

“Lads, I don’t suppose you could help out and give us a push could you?” came a cry from an Irish sounding Aussie wearing a grey Neighbours t-shirt.

Drama on Ramsay Street - i'm in the jeans pushing uphill with Matt!

It turned out the security mans car has broken down, the security man employed to keep pesky tourists away from the street which many of us have grown up watching on our television screens.

Unbeknown to the Neighbours tour guy as Matt and I began pushing the car up Australia’s most famous street, we were having our own dramas too. The campervan needed returning imminently, but against our better judgement, we just had to fit in a visit to the television set.

The day started out in the Grampians at Halls Gap, where we’d spent a couple of days touring around the mountains and beauty spots, while keeping an eye on the local wildlife. Speaking of which, One Leg, the one-legged duck, had yet again come up to us over breakfast, making his weird broken quack noise and looking at us with as much of a ‘I need feeding’ face as a disabled duck could muster. It worked, and yet again I was reaching for the loaf of bread.

Our setup at Halls Gap in the Grampians

With tent packed up, our maps checked and route planned, we set off at around 10am in the direction of Melbourne. The camper was to be handed in at 3pm, and by our rough estimation it allowed us an hour’s stop for lunch and to clean out the camper in Ballarat, where I’d drop off my belongings. My friend Jess has sorted us out some tickets for an Aussie Rules football match at the MCG in Melbourne in the evening, and so I’ll be getting a lift back with her.

I had a problem to sort out on the way, however. With no mobile phone signal in Halls Gap, I had been unable to sort out where to stay. Nat had needed to move her mum into her house, so was unable to accommodate me at hers, and so while we were on the move, and when I finally got phone signal back, I rang Jess and explained the situation. In an instant, she agreed I could stay at hers. I was and still am grateful, and felt lucky to have met such a great group of people in Ballarat.

However, with Jess out for the day, we ended up stopping at James’s house in the city to drop off kit and use his brush to clean out the van. We arrived by midday, and knowing the ride to Melbourne takes a little over an hour, we knew we were ahead of schedule. Fifteen minutes later, we were on our way again and counting down the clock, as well as the kilometres.

Hitting the suburbs of Melbourne, we made a decision. We had all originally wanted to go on the Neighbours tour together, but after finding out it would set us back a staggering $68 each (£40) we decided against it. However, I had been doing some research, and it turns out that Ramsay Street is infact a normal residential street, going by the name of Pin Oak Court. We put it into the satnav – and it told us we’d be there a little after 2pm.

“We’ve got time, we can do it,” Matt said, optimistically.

“It will literally be a get out, get a photo and get back in job,” mused Siobhan.

“I’m easy, I can go another time if you like, but you won’t get another chance to go for a while,” I helpfully threw into the discussion.

The only problem is the Neighbours street is on the complete opposite side of Melbourne to the rental place for the van. With less than an hour to go before it was due back, the decision was made – we were on our way.

As the city skyline loomed large, Siobhan was at the wheel and we were on our way towards a toll tunnel. It was a long tunnel, taking us deep under…. And we emerged back into the sunshine.

“Where’s the toll, how do we pay,” worried Siobhan, as we passed under a set of automatic toll cameras and a sign that said ‘No cash payments’.

It wasn’t the only worry, as by now every set of traffic lights seemed to have colluded with the last to keep us as stationary as possible as we made our way through the city. It was hot, and I could feel the stress levels building between everyone in the van. Nobody wanted it to go back late, especially as there was a hefty fine if it was, and the fact that the office closed early. With Matt and Siobhan flying to New Zealand early the following morning, missing the hand-in was unthinkable.

Yet still we were trapped in more and more traffic. Both lanes were jammed for what seemed like miles, but slowly and surely we were making our way through the intersections. Surely we should be able to hear Lou Carpenters infectious laugh by now?!

Ramsay Street and the official tour bus we didn't catch!

I think it was about 2.25pm on the clock when we finally turned into a quiet suburban sidestreet and caught sight of the Neighbours tour bus, complete with its colourful portraits of characters and the famous soap’s logo.

“Right, get out quick, no hanging about, a quick photo and then back in Knocker,” said Siobhan. She’s not one to mess with when she means it!

And so, with my camera primed, Matt and Siobhan were striding ahead, with barely half an hour to get the photos of a lifetime, back to the van, drive it across Melbourne through afternoon traffic AND get it handed in.

That’s when the cry for help came.

When you can see someone struggling with a broken down vehicle, who has probably been waiting for two fully grown blokes to arrive to lend a hand, the last thing they would have wanted to hear from them when they finally arrive was ‘sorry mate, we’re in a rush,” as they stride off to get some photos. Well, they didn’t, because Matt and I went over. It was just about the last thing we needed to be doing, slowly pushing a van up a hill, but it was only right that we did. It was eating into our already miniscule timeframe in Ramsay Street, but we had no option.

One of the houses

Thankfully, someone who lives in one of the houses turned up in his car and offered to help with some jump leads. Matt and I made a discreet but sharp escape and joined Siobhan, who was already snapping away up the road near a bin with some cricket wickets painted on it. (Toadie’s, apparently)

Now, while the official tour was undoubtedly expensive, what it does offer is the chance to pose with the ‘Ramsay Street’ sign.

Siobhan. Chuffed!

Its pretty much what you pay the money for,  a photo of you on the set, with the sign. This is where we had a stroke of luck – with everyone distracted by the broken down car at the bottom of the street, Siobhan had found the two signs used by the tour under a tree outside one of the houses. Wasting no time, she posed for a couple of photos before swapping with Matt. And then the Neighbours tour man came over and took them away before I had chance to get one.

Then he walked back over again.

“Here you are guys, you’re not actually supposed to be up this end of the street, even the tour doesn’t come up here, but seeing as you helped us out, you can have this,”

One for the scrapbook!

He handed me one of the signs, and we all snapped away again. Two minutes later, we wandered back down the street, I handed the Ramsey Street sign back to him, thanked him and headed back to the campervan. In the meantime, a family of Scottish tourists were quite clearly wondering why they had spent hundreds of dollars on a trip that we had done in just a few minutes for free, and got exactly the same photos. A tip for anyone visiting Melbourne!

Back in the camper, and time was running out to get it back to the other side of the city. As Siobhan crunched through the gears, I was dropped off at a bus stop to find my way to their hotel – afterall, it was a hire on the basis of two people riding in it, so I had to make myself scarce!

I jumped on a tram and made my way through the city to St Kilda Road and to Matt and Siobhan’s plush hotel, which funnily enough was next door to the centre where I did my Responsible Service of Alcohol certificate. I settled down for a coffee in the lobby, only to get a desperate series of texts and phonecalls from them both. The gist of it was whether I had moved the jackets and shirts from the inside of the campervan, and that Matt was an idiot…

I hadn’t moved said jackets and shirts – they were still hanging inside the campervan, which in turn was now locked up inside a compound. It didn’t open up again until 8am the following day, one whole hour after Matt and Siobhan’s flight leaves Melbourne for New Zealand. It was fair to say Matt was in the doghouse.

Thankfully, I was still going to be a train ride away from the offending rack of clothes, and while I couldn’t get them over to New Zealand, I would at least be able to send them back to the UK in the post.

Jacketless, but on the way to the MCG

In the meantime, we had one last bit of entertainment ahead, a match of Aussie Rules footy between Collingwood and Hawthorn at Melbourne Cricket Ground, affectionately known as the MCG, or just the ‘G’ by the locals.

The MCG is as imposing as it is spectacular, a huge, modern bowl standing proud right on the edge of chilled-out Melbourne’s central business district. The trams were packed with fans and good-natured banter, and as we walked along the riverside path among them to the stadium, there was a familiar feeling. With the G getting closer, it felt very similar to that walk up Wembley Way, with fans of both teams walking side by side and the tension building among them.

Getting closer to the G

The other side of it that also felt familiar was the colours of the shirts – the walkway was full of black and white stripes belonging to Collingwood, and of the dark brown and amber of Hawthorn. It was as if I was in the middle of a crowd of people on the way to watch Grimsby Town versus Hull City, and naturally, I was supporting the team that resembled the Mariners. Collingwood are also known as the Magpies, or the ‘Pies in short, which kept Siobhan happy.

Members entrance

It was all helped by the fact we were meeting Jess and her daughter Liv from Ballarat, who had managed to secure some tickets for us through a friend who is a member of Collingwood Supporters Group. The match is a huge fixture on the calendar, and the equivalent to one of the big name opening day fixtures in the Premier League. This was the Chelsea vs Man Utd of Australia, eagerly looked forward to by fans around Australia. According to those you speak to here, soccer (as they call our game) is for wimps and pansies. Apparently, this is a mans’ game, and when we got into the stadium you could begin to understand why.

Kick off, bounce off, whatever it was...

Its basically a cross between rugby and football (our football) played on a cricket pitch. There’s a ridiculous number of players, its far from a game of two halves as there’s four quarters, and its played with an egg, sorry, a small rugby ball. The aim is to kick or punch the ball between two big sticks at the end of the pitch – through the middle, taller sticks for six points, and through the smaller side posts for one point.

Huge playing area

There’s no denying it’s a fast-paced, full-blooded game. I had no idea what was happening at first, but thankfully with Jess and Liv by my side, I was able to relay the rules across to Siobhan and Matt at the other side. It was an exciting game to watch, and the atmosphere inside the MCG was electric. There was a lot of goals scored, each one welcomed by fans with huge pom-poms behind the posts.

Liv and Jess getting into the game

I've had an idea for the Pontoon at Blundell Park next season...

There were more than 70,000 fans inside the G, showing just how popular this sport is. The first quarter, of around 25 minutes, was over in a flash, and it was close between the two teams. After a five minute break, the action started again, with Hawthorn piling on the pressure, much to the delight of quite a few fans around us. Collingwood managed to keep the scores down before going in at half time at 51-66.

Familiar colours around my neck during a game...

With a black and white scarf around my neck, there was a familiar story of poor defending costing the black and white army the game – and with 10 minutes left of the fourth quarter, and with Collingwood trailing, Matt and Siobhan had to leave.

A last pic with Matt, Siobhan and Liv before we went our seperate ways

There were hugs all round before I watched them make their way down the dozens of steps to the exit, knowing I wont see them again for months. But we’d had a brilliant week together, a week that was a fantastic reminder of my life at home, the fun and laughs that you have with such close friends, the stories of everyone back in Hull and life in the Look North newsroom.

It had been an exciting week full of beautiful scenery, fresh air, wildlife and walks. It had also been a week of being cramped up in the front of a van made for just two adults and a small child, of living in the bush with just a thin layer of tent material separating me from all that Australia’s insects could throw at me, and of drinking wine out of plastic cups. But saying that, it was also a week that surprised me, in that all the campsites we stayed at offered great facilities, all had hot showers and clean toilet blocks, and it was remarkably easy to roll up, drive in and have dinner on the go within minutes at the often well-equipped and hygienic camp kitchens. It was a week that we’ll all remember, and I smiled as I watched my friends from home disappear through the exit tunnel.

In the end, Hawthorn ran away with the match, finishing with the scoreline of 137-115, but for me, the scoreline was almost irrelevant. It had been a great experience to witness this great Australian spectacle in one of the world’s most impressive sports grounds.

Final score

Jess and Liv after the game, still smiling despite the result

I spent a good 15 minutes with Jess and Liv at the end of the game soaking up the atmosphere and walking further around inside the ground to fully appreciate the size of the place. It is a great stadium, and there was nothing better than seeing and hearing it in all its glory, full of sports-mad footy fans.

With my friend Jess at the almost empty MCG

Despite the result, Jess was still smiling even though her beloved Collingwood lost thanks to a special mention of the Pies on the radio thousands of miles away from Melbourne. My friend and colleague Simon Clark had picked up on my Tweets from the game, given Siobhan and I a mention, and used it as a topic for a phone-in on BBC Radio Humberside’s Sportstalk programme he was presenting. It was all about ‘the most extraordinary sports event you’ve been to’.

As Jess drove me back to Ballarat, I reflected on how my night at the MCG was definitely up there on my list. What a special night, and indeed a special week, the past seven days had been.

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Hikes, Hops and Mountain Tops

Heading to the mountains...

We left the coast and the incredible Great Ocean Road behind us to move inland and on to the Grampians, a national park and huge area full of mountains and waterfalls known for its outstanding natural beauty.

The drive itself was an experience, with long straight roads scything through open expanses of farmland as we left Point Fairy behind us and made our way towards Halls Gap, a small town right in the middle of the mountain range.

The Grampians loom on the horizon

For mile after mile, cattle farms and gum trees dominated the flat landscape, but a few hours later, mountains began to appear on the horizon. For much of the journey, the three of us have been listening to an Australian singer called Matt Corby thanks to a couple of CDs that we’d bought Siobhan for her birthday. While it wasn’t for a few days yet, we decided we’d let her open a couple of presents along the way.

As we began to rise above the surrounding countryside, we passed through areas that had been clearly affected by bushfires at some point in the past. But as we pulled into our first tourist point in the Grampians, it was another natural disaster which surprised us.

Eek!

We found ourselves at Silverband Falls after being tempted by the brown tourist signs advertising a waterfall. There was a slightly worrying warning of falling limbs as you enter, but despite Siobhan’s fears she may end up legless (a not uncommon problem when we’re together) we presume it meant from the trees.

As we worked our way down to a slow meandering stream in the valley, some stepping stones had been put in place to cross to the water and rejoin the pathway on the opposite side. It was there that we came across a sign and some remarkable photographs – part of the path was closed, the stepping stones were in place of what was once a permanent bridge, and the dead trees, branches and debris that was scattered around was all thanks to a huge storm that hit the area last year.

Dead trees and driftwood piled high

We walked along the path at the side of the stream, struggling to comprehend the damage and destruction that had been caused by the storm and floodwater that had gushed through the valley just over a year ago. Great gulleys had been formed down the hill side, with broken trees and branches littering the ground. Huge piles of driftwood were gathered around anything strong enough to withstand the force of the water. Huge rocks had been washed down like pebbles, yet the waterfall at the end of the walk was almost a trickle falling over the side of the cliff face. How different it must have been when Mother Nature was showing her true force.

Just a trickle of a waterfall

Just a few minutes up the road, we went on to find a lake set in a bowl between the mountains, a lake that just opened up before us as we made our way into the car park. There was hardly anyone around, and the place was silent. The water level had clearly receded in recent weeks and months thanks to a drought, but it provided ample opportunities for photographs.

Siobhan at the lake

Chilling at the lake

From the lake it was a relatively short drive to Halls Gap, but we were on the lookout for somewhere to eat. We came across an adventure golf place, and I was sent in to scout it out. Not only did it look like a great place to bring out the competitive spirit in us all on the brilliantly laid out crazy golf, but it had a lovely little place to stop and have some lunch, and at good prices too.

Out comes the competitiveness between us!

After a chicken and avocado toasty, some potato wedges and salad, it was time to grab a putter and take to the greens. True to form, I’d already promised Matt I would beat him, but we both knew Siobhan could be a dark horse when it comes to sport. Especially when much of it is down to luck – and there was no shortage of it needed on the 18 holes at the course. After the first couple of holes, where apart from some devilish gradients to trap the ball, it was a simple putt, the course changed into one of the most difficult I have ever seen.

Concentration...and pot luck

With steep runs down past water, jumps, rickety wooden tubes, nasty traps and some almost impossible accuracy needed in places, it proved to be a great laugh. After I got the first hole down in two, I took an early lead that I managed to hold on to for much of the game, while Matt simply had a shocker.

Fore!

Siobhan, on the other hand, kept the pressure on me, and when it comes to sport, as many friends know, I tend to bottle it when the pressure gets going. And bottle it I did, throwing away a healthy lead on a stupid hole where you had to guide the ball through a tiny gap. It meant Siobhan emerged from the last hole victorious, but at least I wasn’t last. That was Matt’s job.

Victorious Siobhan...

Matt and his big L, for 'Loser'

The owner of the golf course also pointed us in the direction of the best place to stay in the town, at a camping site slap bang in the middle of the area, surrounded by hills, trees and wildlife.

We pulled up in the camper and jumped out. The sun was beating down, with some late afternoon warmth. We got chairs out of the van, pitched the tent, and relaxed for the rest of the afternoon. Matt and I pulled out yet another gift for Siobhan, this time a bottle of bubbles that I had cunningly disguised by wrapping it inside my backpack daypack. It went straight into the fridge for later.

Birthday bubbles

One of the first things we all noticed at Halls Gap was the amount of wildlife. There were many famously Australian kookaburras hanging around, while cockatoos and magpies, with their strange garbled songs, were everywhere.

Kookaburras

About an hour after we arrived, and as the sun began to set behind the mountain, suddenly there was a cry of ‘kangaroos’ from Siobhan.

Sure enough, a family of kangaroos hopped into view in front of us, making their way across the grass and stopping to eat along the way. A few of us went over to take photographs, while still keeping a safe distance, while one daring couple went over to try to give them some food, despite all the advice, warnings and signs around the place telling us not to.

Kangas in the campsite

It was great to see the kangaroos in the wild, and suddenly it felt like I was properly in Australia again. The animal is a national icon, and I spent a while just looking at them and watching as they happily hopped around, stopping to eat grass, all under the watchful eye of who I presume was dad, laying on the ground and giving me an occasional glance nearby.

There was another interesting character we met too – a one-legged duck that we gave the original name of ‘One Leg’. We first spotted him when he came flying towards us and made a perculiar crash landing near the tent. When we saw him hopping back towards us from his crash site, we soon realised why. Somehow he’d lost a limb – we don’t think it was related to the falling limb signs in the woods earlier in the day – but he had clearly been surviving quite well. All his duck mates did seem to have turned their back on him though, so, always a sucker for poorly animals, we pulled out a loaf of bread and gave him some of the end.

'One Leg'

It was quite something to watch as he hopped over to the bread, flung it around in his beak, ate a bit, and then hopped off to wherever it had landed again, repeating the process over and over until it had all gone. But little One Leg would quietly hang around, waiting for more scraps, looking at us forlornly as if it knew we would take pity yet again and cave in to giving him more of the Coles wholemeal loaf. I know we would have done, had the neighbouring camper not sparked up a barbecue and tempting the disabled duck off for a burger.

We were tempted across the road for pizzas that night, spending the evening out on the decking with dinner, wildlife, and planning for the following day.

Another bit of Australian wildlife we found

With a strenuous day of walking and climbing ahead, we made the pledge that night to get up early the following day. It was, as usual, a pledge we failed to keep, and instead we found ourselves making the ascent up to the Pinnacle, one of the highest points in the Grampians, in the middle of the day. It was a bit of a scorcher too – after the disappointment of the weather in Melbourne when Matt and Siobhan arrived, along with the cloud, wind and rain for part of our time on the Great Ocean Road, I was glad that we were now getting some nice warm weather.

On the way up to the Pinnacle

The ascent up to the Pinnacle wasn’t difficult, but it was a good old fashioned scramble in some places. Rocky outcrops, a stream, great little bits to climb, overhangs to duck under – it was a fun climb up. At one point, Matt and I clambered on top of a rocky shelf, grabbing some great photographs with the landscape behind us. It was amazingly quiet too, just the noise of a gentle breeze and the occasional bird on its way through the valley. You had to look where you were walking too – there were scores of lizards baking out in the sun, most of which would quickly dive under rocks the moment my size 10s went anywhere near them.

Cooling down in the cool cavern

On the way up we came across around a dozen people on the way back down, all of whom said it was worth the effort. We took a breather and a drink in the originally named Cool Cavern, which, as the name suggested, was refreshingly cool and it was nice to get out of the hot midday sun for a while.

Matt and Siobhan at the top

Back on the walking trail, there were a few bits that would leave us puffing and panting, but then when we got to the top, all the energy and exercise was forgotten. As the name suggests, the Pinnacle was a fantastic rocky overhang, leaning out high over the rock face. You could see for miles, a fantastic view of the lake stretching out below, mountains opposite, Halls Gap nestled among trees in the valley, and a horizon stretching out for miles across the flat Victoria countryside beyond.

We made it!

After our workout to get up to the top, we spent a while up there taking photographs and enjoying the view. Thankfully there were metal railings to hold on to at the top of the Pinnacle, and they were needed too – it was easy to feel a bit giddy thanks to the height and lack of anything around you. There were also some giant flying ants that had a habit of dive bombing you, and efforts to bat them away usually failed.

I can see the pub from here...

Looking out over the range

Thankfully, the walk back down to the car park only took half as long as the long hike up to the top. It might have been something to do with the reward of a drink and a bit of leftover pizza we’d kept in the fridge from the night before, but once we got there we savoured the treat.

Beautiful Grampians

Next up was another viewpoint, a place marked up as Boroka lookout. It was around half an hours drive through beautiful woodland from the Pinnacle, and there was nobody there when we arrived. Yet again, the view left us speechless. For the sake of driving just a few kilometres, it gave us a whole new perspective on the lake and the mountains that we had just been standing over. Now, they were in the distance to our right, and looked even more spectacular.

At the viewpoint

By now, ice creams were calling, but first there was another waterfall to see. As Siobhan quite rightly pointed out, we were fairly ‘waterfalled out’ but I was assured McKenzie falls was particularly impressive. Unfortunately, it also had a particularly impressive steep descent down to the bottom of the falls, but going by the sound of water crashing at the base, along with the river that snakes its way over boulders and rocks at the top, we knew it would be the best of the lot.

McKenzie Falls in the Grampians

With the sun glinting from the white foamy water as it tumbles down the rockface, the tip offs about it being the most spectacular waterfall around proved right. Like most places in the area, there was evidence of the huge storm that hit last year – a mass of twisted trees, branches and metal from a collapsed bridge were cordoned off to the left of the waterfall, a trail that follows the river simply washed away. With driftwood littered all over the hillside and down the face of the waterfall, it must have been quite something to stand where we were, looking up at the torrent that surely would have been streaming over the top.

The trek back up to the top was probably the hardest of the day, and all of our legs were aching and tired by now. It wasn’t helped by the steep steps and long stretches of uphill pathways back to the car park, but there was however an ice cream shop where we all enjoyed a breather and a refreshing ice lolly. It was there we decided to head back to the campsite to enjoy the rest of the afternoon, with a barbecue to look forward to.

Campsite cooking!

I say barbecue – it was actually more of a fry up if I’m honest. The campsites all have public barbecues, either free or for a small contribution of a dollar or so for the gas.They are completely different to what you’d imagine though, and are pretty much just a hot plate for cooking on. Its outside, so I guess that makes it a barbie, and rather than throwing shrimps on it (that’s one for my Aussie readers, mainly because I know how much the saying is both a) wrong and b) a great way of winding you up) we slapped a couple of burgers and some eggs on it. I was chef, Siobhan was on salad and bread duty, Matt was photographer for a while.

Yes, we'd both agreed not to shave for the week...

It wasn’t long before we had some familiar faces by our side – good old One Leg showed up for a bit of bread, while a kookaburra kept a close eye on any scraps that were going spare.

Laugh, Kookaburra laugh...

Despite our best efforts to find a pub that was open in the town, Matt and I ended up going for a quick beer at one of the nearby restaurants, while Siobhan got an early night. All the fresh air and exercise had taken it out of us all, although we had a sneaky suspicion that the combination of Matt Corby and the motion of the campervan was to blame for much of our lethargy over the last few days. We all ended up in bed early though, and tried to get to sleep.

With a few of my friends that kept me awake...

Only in the pitch darkness, just as my eyes were closing, there was a strange noise outside.

“Padump, bop. Padump, bop. Padump, bop.”

It was accompanied by a munching sound, similar to that of a horse or a cow. I slowly opened the zip to my tent, only to see a huge kangaroo just a few metres away. I looked around further to see a whole family of eight were dotted around me – a fantastic sight, and in the moonlight I sat with my head out of the tent, watching kangaroos and trying to savour the moment. I know in a few months time, it will be times like this that I’ll struggle to believe.

­­

Great days, Great Ocean Road

Going 'Round the Twist' on the Great Ocean Road?!

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.

Wrapping (innit!)

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.

Matt and Siobhan arrive to pick me up in Ballarat

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.

Matt does the cooking, while Siobhan judges the cooking on the telly!

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.

Bangers for tea!

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.

Matt claims I look like a wombat...

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.

Looking for Incy Wincey biter

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.

Running for cover...

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.

Hitting the surfing mecca of Bells Beach

With Siobhan overlooking Bells Beach

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.

Surfer at Bells

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.

Waiting for the surf

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.

Split Point Lighthouse at Aireys Inlet

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.

Welcome to the Great Ocean Road

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.

Plaque at one of the viewpoints

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.

Waves crash just metres from the famous road

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.

Matt and the camper on the Great Ocean Road

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.

The Great Ocean Road

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.

A great drive

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.

Up to our usual tricks!

One of many coves on the Great Ocean Road

With dark clouds gathering, we spent the night at Apollo Bay, catching up over cups of tea and glasses of Aussie wine.

Cosy!

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.

Matt, Siobhan and a great spot for brekky!

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.

Egg-celent views over breakfast

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

'Can't. Eat. One. More. Leaf....' Zzzzzzz

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!

Ahhhh!

I made a friend...

...and so did Matt!

Aussie birds. Pretty.

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…

A spiky character

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.

The Twelve Apostles. Only, there aren't 12 anymore

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.

I guess that spells it out pretty clearly!

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.

Taking a pounding from the ocean

One for the scrapbook

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.

Spotted on a sign at a viewpoint - and how to state the obvious

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.

Matt and I having a shocker with the tent!

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.

Fancy seeing you here!

Friends from home - celebrating the arrival of Siobhan and Matt in Melbourne

It was always going to be a special moment when two of my closest friends from home came out to join me, but seeing their smiling faces waving at me from a bus on the other side of the world will always stay with me.

I was at Southern Cross coach terminal in Melbourne, having caught an early morning train from Ballarat. Also up and about early that morning were Matt and Siobhan, my friends and colleagues from home who were flying in from Sydney as part of their four week holiday together.

We’ve been good friends for years – Siobhan and I first met when she worked as a reporter and news presenter on Viking FM, who, during a series of police drugs raids in Grimsby, decided to take refuge in my car as she felt she was unable to keep up with the cops as they ran red lights and broke speed limits across North East Lincolnshire. I had been at Look North for almost a year at this point, and still in the process of getting to know people in the world of broadcasting after my time in newspapers. Siobhan was a good laugh, knew her stuff and was good fun to be around. We hit it off straight away, staying in touch through email, and I’d often drop her a cheeky line having listened to her make some sort of cock up on the radio while I drove into work. A particular highlight was when she was asked in a radio quiz to name something with eight legs: Her hasty answer of ‘a dog’ still makes me laugh.

Back in the day with Peter - taken before Siobhan joined the Look North team!

It was rumoured in those days she was Peter Levy’s number one fan – which I may or may not have let slip to our main presenter on a couple of occasions – but the fact she now works as a fellow presenter on Look North is actually nothing to do with her apparent love of the Levy. Matt, on the other hand, is my former housemate and producer, thanks in part to Siobhan who collared me one night and told me to take him in.

As it happens, Matt and I became such close mates, he’s almost seen as a big brother to me – although a lot of the time, I ended up having to look after him!

In Dublin on my 30th last year with Matt (right) and our mate Rich

The fact that we’re clumsy, forgetful and untidy made our housemate arrangement as lodger and landlord a match made in heaven. While he might have driven me mad on some days as he bossed me around the patch for his programmes, back home we’d spend hours playing Fifa on the Xbox, he’d cook countless meals for me, and I’d spend many hours cleaning the hairy bloke’s mane from the bathroom plugs. For three years, it was non-stop laughter that at times mirrored Clunes and Morrisey in Men Behaving Badly – and thanks to his relationship with Siobhan, the three of us would often spend much of our spare time together at each others homes.

Another one from my birthday Dublin trip - this photo was Matt's idea!

They had been there for me through some of the toughest times I’ve known, becoming soulmates and people I knew I could trust as I found myself single once again. They were a shoulder to cry on far too many times than was good for them, and they never failed to make me see a brighter future ahead. They were two influential voices in my decision to travel, but were also two people I loved being around, be it beers on ‘The Ave’, dinner at Siobhan’s or trying to tame her beloved cat Dave.

We did so much together that it was perhaps part of the script that as my decision to take a career break was taken, Matt moved out to live with Siobhan, and just a month or so later gained a dream job at Sky News. It meant he was leaving Look North at the same time as me – we even shared the same leaving date and had a joint leaving do that night.

Back then, they had already booked their holiday for the following year of four weeks in Australia and New Zealand.

“Imagine if I’m still around then, we could meet up and do something together,” I remember saying to him in my living room as he priced up flights.

And so, as the bus from Melbourne’s Avalon Airport pulled in, you probably now have more of an idea as to just how much I had been looking forward to the pair of them arriving after an eventful five months strapped to a backpack.

They've arrived!

Siobhan’s beaming smile was the first one I could see, waving to me from the coach as I walked over to the railings it had pulled into. As the lights went on inside the vehicle, I could see Matt laughing, smiling and waving. Once again, suddenly the world felt like a very small place, and there were big hugs all round as we were reunited once again.

“You’ve lost loads of weight,” was their first observation, followed by groans as I lined them up for a photo with their bags.

“You know me, its for the blog,” I laughed back with them.

It was strange welcoming them to Melbourne, a city I’m now feeling very familiar with. For them, it’s their first visit to Australia, let alone the city of Melbourne, and so I took them outside to the trams and taxis. We headed to their hotel in South Yarra to drop their bags off, before making our way into the city by tram for some breakfast.

We found ourselves in a pancake place with the slogan of Lovely Pancakes. Their slogan was branded on everything, and Siobhan put her lovely cups on display, as did Matt.

Matt and his Lovely cups...

Already, we had picked up where we left off on that autumnal day in October when I said goodbye to them, and there was plenty of catching up to do – news from work, who’s doing what, who’s working where, news from Hull and nationally, things I’ve missed, gossip, personal news, stories from my travels. The list went on, and somehow, although we’ve got a week together, I don’t think we’ll even be able to catch up on everything in that time.

After downing three refills of coffee (I’m still in backpacker mode!) we made our way out into the shopping centre we’d found ourselves in, stopped by a few shops to find some canvas shoes for them both, and then made our way to the river for drinks and a bit of lunch.

Impressive shopping centre roof over an old mill

We ended up at a nice spot enjoying a beer and some chicken and lamb kebabs when a particularly surreal thing happened. Suddenly, a guy who works in the restaurant came up to Matt and I and asked if I worked on television.

“Erm, well, yes, and so does Siobhan,” I said, slightly surprised.

“I knew it,” he said back.

“I recognised your face from somewhere. What programme is it you work for?”

I told him, explaining that there was no way he’d have seen Look North while being on the other side of the world, but that he may have seen me on some of the outtake programmes that have been made.

“That must be it, I’ve definitely seen you on tv,” he said back.

On the way out, he even told me how he’d remembered it was on the SBS channel, which does show a lot of British television programmes. Incredibly, and probably down to the fact I once dropped an ice cream in Hull’s Queen Victoria Square, much to the amusement and ridicule of Anne Robinson on Outtake TV, I have now been recognised in Australia. Someone somewhere has made some money out of that particular mishap…and it wasn’t me!

Matt and Siobhan, a map and Melbourne

From there we made our way to Melbourne’s tallest building, but decided against making the trip to the viewing platform, instead heading back towards the city centre in search of a rooftop bar I had been told about in Ballarat.

Things were looking up

Sure enough, six floors up above Melbourne in Swanston Street, there was a rooftop full of people enjoying the views and a frothy beer. We joined them, catching up over pints of James Boag beer and a burger. It was well priced for the centre of the city, with a pint costing $9 (about £5) which for Australia is a decent price.

After a few hours chinwagging and getting slightly tipsy in the process, we made our way back towards St Kilda on the tram and to their hotel. I left clutching a bag of their washing to clean overnight in Ballarat, and looking forward to an exciting week ahead together. Tomorrow they will pick up a campervan and drive to Ballarat to pick me up, before we head down to the famous Great Ocean Road.