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Driving the Great Ocean Road

I hadn’t realized how much I missed driving until I picked up my little Hyundai Getz at Melbourne Airport and headed down the Great Ocean Road. Fraulein was my 1994 Volkswagon Golf and she died in March. Since then, I’ve only borrowed my Mum’s car now and then, so I’ve gone from driving almost every day to once every couple of weeks just around downtown Toronto.

The Great Ocean Road is often listed as one of the top ten drives in the world and it provided me with a glorious return to form. The road winds along the windswept southwestern coast of Australia, turning inland in some places where it curves through eucalyptus rainforest. It is definitely a road built for those of us who love driving.

My first stop was Geelong where I grabbed some lunch and checked out the waterfront Bay Walk Bollards. These painted figures represent local characters and highlight different historical events in the area. The weather started to get worse after that and I drove through the rain past the surfing area of Torquay and all the way through to my final destination of Port Campbell. The scenery was supposed to be spectacular so I was hoping for better weather the next day when I would work my way back to Melbourne.  I only stopped in Anglesea to see the wild kangaroos that live on the local golf course and then again in Kennett River to see the wild koalas that live in a grove of eucalyptus trees. They’re very slow, nonchalant creatures, those koalas.

My cunning strategy paid off and the next day was a shorts and sunscreen kinda day. Port Campbell National Park is home to the most dramatic part of the coastline and there are several scenic points where geology has been very good to photographers. I started off by driving west to the Bay of Martyrs, stopping to see the London Arch and Loch Ard Gorge.

London Arch

Loch Ard Gorge

This whole coast line was shipwreck country and it’s not hard to see how it claimed over 160 ships . The rough waves pound the shore incessantly in that oceany rhythmic hypnotic way, with nothing between them and Antarctica. The Loch Ard Gorge itself is named after the Loch Ard which ran aground in 1878 after it had finally arrived from England, with forty-nine of the fifty-one passengers and crew perishing. So much destruction and beauty and ruggedness and despair. It was the risk that people took for the promise of a new life and that totally resonates with me right now. If I could get on a ship setting sail for new lands, maybe I would, damn the torpedos.

But for today, it was on to the headliners of the Great Ocean Road, the Twelve Apostles, the world’s tallest limestone rock stacks.

They tower over each other along the coastline, weathered by erosion. There actually aren’t twelve stacks visible from any point and nobody is sure if there ever were twelve (the most recent collapse was in July 2005 when one of the stacks completely crumbled into the sea). The formation used to be called the Sow and Piglets, but obviously that didn’t sell as well on T-shirts. And everyone knows you can’t go wrong with a biblical reference. While I was there, an F-18 military jet raced by which seemed totally out of place and was probably the first time that I ever gave any thought to the Australian Air Force. I mean, I guess they have one but their presence hadn’t really registered on my personal war monitoring radar. Something to Google then.

I wish I could embed a scratch-and-sniff button right here so you could smell the scent of the eucalyptus forest that filled the car as I headed to Wreck Beach. After all of those clifftop views, I wanted to get down and take a dip in de salt (well, at least my toes), so I climbed the 350 steps down to see the rusted out anchors of the Marie Gabrielle and the Fiji, both wrecked in the late nineteenth century. They were so old and ancient and rusted, but so still there. They were history that I could touch and smell and feel. A silent thank-you to all of my Convent history teachers for bringing history alive enough in the classroom to pass on that love to me.

On my way back to Melbourne, I couldn’t help but stop to see the koalas again. They’re like living stuffed animals and it was surreal to see them just hanging out in trees. And because they hang out near a campground I knew that it could also be a “comfort stop” as they say in the tour business. These bathrooms were particularly mucky underfoot so I rested my camera on the top of the toilet tank. The camera was attached to my Joby tripod and it seemed like a perfectly good idea at the time. Well, of course it did. It was a perfectly good idea for about 2 minutes. Then when my camera slid off the toilet tank and straight into the toilet bowl, it’s true nature became clear. It was actually the dumbest idea in the world and I have since submitted for Guinness certification. The camera was completely submerged under (ahem)water but the tripod proved to be a handy retrieve-your-camera-from-a-toilet-bowl tool, so there was my silver lining, right there.

I fished it out, shook out the (ahem) water as best as I could and tried to be zen about it and engage my mindfulness skills. I told myself maybe it could be fixed. I told myself how lucky I was that I could afford to buy a new one. I told myself at least I was headed to a big city where I would be able to get a new one. I told myself everything happens for a reason. I told myself it was just the camera and I was healthy and whole and nothing had happened to me.

All of this magically worked and I was okay about it until the next day in Melbourne when I bought a new camera. I wanted to get one that took double AA batteries so I wouldn’t have to deal with the Australian plug on a rechargeable battery. I’m a Canon not a Nikon so after some Australian electronics sticker shock, I bought a Canon Powershot SX 110 IS. I spent the day walking around downtown Melbourne and while I managed to take a couple of good shots, I was quite disappointed overall.

Flinders Street Station

Eureka Tower, Southbank

Luna Park

I was really overwhelmed by how sad I felt then and how keenly I felt the loss of my camera. Somehow, because I was travelling alone, the camera was like a companion. Taking pictures gave me a focus. It gave me something to think about and it connected me to the people back at home that I knew I would be sharing the pictures with eventually. Taking pictures made me feel less alone and in that moment, feeling let down by Canon, I felt incredibly lonely and I had a little cry.

After I pulled myself together, I took the camera back and exchanged it for a Canon Powershot SX 200 IS (Canon doesn’t make the model of my toilet camera anymore). It was marginally better but I was still not that impressed by the picture quality despite the glowing online reviews.

But my peeps, sometimes the universe taketh away and then sometimes the universe giveth. Call Ripley if you want, but a mere 3 days later, the toilet camera came back to life. Nas had told me to give it a couple of days and to put in a bowl of rice to help dry it out, but I was doubtful. I didn’t bother with the rice but I left it to dry out with all of the compartments opened up and yes, ye of little faith (that means me), the Melbourne Miracle came to pass and the toilet camera was alive again.

Since I don’t have a religion I wasn’t sure who to thank exactly, so to be safe and equitable, I just thanked them all. I owe somebody a big one.


Kangaroos and Koalas

I am somewhat known in my family (and by some of my friends) as a thorough travel planner. I love the research process and looking at guide books and websites and figuring out what I want to do when I go somewhere. I will admit to spending hours online trying to find the best car rental deal and you know I am not booking a hotel before trolling tripadvisor forums to check out the good reviews and to avoid the horror stories.

So imagine my surprise when I was checking in on Air New Zealand at LAX and the woman at the desk asked where my visa was for Australia. I was like, uh, what visa? With all of my planning and research, I had failed to come across the teeny tiny fact that you need a visitor visa to come to Australia. I was all like, but I have a Canadian passport! She gave me a withering look and went ahead and applied for it electronically for me, thank God. What good is being part of the Commonwealth then, eh? 

All went well with the flight in the end and after a couple of days of recovering from jet lag and getting to know Maroubra Beach (Tammy’s neighbourhood) a little bit, we didn’t waste any time wading right in to the Australian stereotypes. Because, really, what’s more Australian than kangaroos and koalas? We headed north to Featherdale Wildlife Park on a bright Saturday morning with Tammy’s mum, Penny, riding shotgun. Our original plan was to go to the Watarah Park Earth Sanctuary which was listed in one of Tammy’s Sydney guide books, but apparently it was closed in 2007 due to lack of interest. Featherdale was more zoo-like than we expected, as some of the animals roam free and some are caged. I may not rock a PETA bumpersticker, but it’s always hard to see animals caged up.

All of the animals and birds at Featherdale are native to Australia and as we walked through the park, kangaroos and wallabies bounded about, kookaburras chortled and koalas snoozed. I was amazed that I had never even heard of a bilby, a bettong, a quoll, a quokka or a pademelon (all small mammals). We also saw echidnas, wombats and two goannas getting it on. I was completely fascinated by the colony of red flying foxes which gently stirred in their sleep, constantly unfolding and readjusting their wings, trying to find a more comfortable position, I guess.


And of course, like any tourist attraction worth its salt, the path through the park ended at the gift shop where amongst the fridge magnets, Akubra hats and tea towels were these delighful souvenirs:

I’m not really sure what to make of these golliwog dolls being for sale at the Featherdale Wildlife Park gift shop. There are few black people in Sydney (and I assume the rest of Australia) and you don’t really see many Aboriginal people either. Like in many other places, people stare at me, but it’s always difficult to know how much of that has to do with “Holy black person, Batman!” and how much of that has to do with solving the gender puzzle (I’m like sudoku, but cuter).

Of course there is racism everywhere, but Australia has a long, complex relationship with white-on-black racism from the Stolen Generations to the more recent Cronulla Riots. And a  study released last week by the Foundation for Young Australians showed that 80% of non-Anglo secondary school students across Australia have experienced ‘racial vilification’.

While violence and verbal abuse are always shocking, after 17 years of living in Canada, somehow it was even more shocking to see those dolls lined up for sale in a souvenir shop. So casual. So oblivious. So unrelated to Australian wildlife. I’m still not sure what to make of it.

The Referendum

So I started this blog before I went to Iceland and then I never posted because we couldn’t get online, I didn’t have time and it just didn’t get off the ground. But I like technology and I like writing and I love my new netbook, so let’s try this again.

I have so much in my head these days, and I think it will help me to have somewhere to write some of it down. Along with travel stories, of course. Sometimes it’s only when you have to find the words to describe your thoughts that you really realize what it is that you’re thinking.

Or sometimes you read the words that someone else found to describe what they were thinking, and you think, yeah, that’s it.

That’s how I felt when I read The Referendum, a blog post by Tim Kreider in the New York Times. He writes about getting to that stage in life where we look at how other people’s choices have worked out to reassure ourselves that we made the right choices after all — “that we are, in some sense, winning”.

The Referendum










I think I’ve made a lot of the same choices as many people and they haven’t worked out the way I expected. Now, I am in quite a different place to many of the people around me and I’ve made quite a different choice than might have been expected. And I guess that’s what all of this is about. How do I make the next choice that is right for me without worrying about what other people have and do? And what about the choice after that?