Friday, 25 December 2015

Great Ocean Road

The route known as B100 on a roadmap is better known as the Great Ocean Road and is one of the country’s most famous drives. From its eastern beginning in the city of Geelong, it takes travellers through seaside towns and pockets of rainforest on the way to the famous Twelve Apostles at Port Campbell. Along the way, the road enables an up close and personal experience with sheer limestone cliffs and the crashing surf of the Southern Ocean. I decided that the best way to experience this was to hire a car for the day which I did with a friend.

The bollards of Geelong

On what turned out to be a wonderful day, my only regret was that we didn’t start earlier in the morning. Either that, or do the journey over two days because there is just so much to see and do! Not to worry though because we crammed as much as we could into the daylight that we had. The adventure started with a walk along the Geelong waterfront to admire the colourful painted bollards. Each of these delightful icons almost seem to have their own unique character and little story to tell.

Just a short drive into, and arguably the beginning of the Great Ocean Road is the town of Torquay. Once a sleepy seaside town, it has now become the Australian surfing capital because of its close proximity to the world-famous Bells Beach. The fickle swell wasn’t really at its best as we passed through but it hadn’t stopped surfers getting out and hoping the long right-hander would give eventually them a great ride. I would have been happy to stay and watch but there was so much more to see!

Surf's up at Bells Beach

Onward we travelled through the town of Anglesea and Aireys Inlet with its 34m-high Split Point Lighthouse. We stopped briefly to get a few photos and read a little about the history of the keeper’s cottages that were built there in 1891. With its tall gumtrees and gleaming Loutit Bay, the picturesque town of Lorne was the ideal place to break for lunch. The road from here through to Apollo Bay offers some of the best ocean views before deviating inland through the rainforest at Cape Otway.

It’s here that you can get unique views of the forest canopy from an elevated steel walkway which leads to a lookout tower. Unfortunately we had to speed past because time was pressing and Port Campbell was awaiting us. To get there we rejoined the coastline at the tiny town of Glenaire before returning inland and traversing the farmland of Lavers Hill. On an overcast or rainy day, this area can get seriously foggy but fortunately we had no such worries. The afternoon sun was glorious!

View from Twelve Apostles lookout

Port Campbell is a small, windswept in the National Park of the same name. It is home to the Twelve Apostles which is the most famous and photographed stretch of the entire Great Ocean Road. For thousands of years the winds, waves and tides have combined to erode and carve a fascinating series of limestone rock stacks, gorges, arches and blowholes. The Apostles themselves are huge rocky stacks that have been abandoned to the ocean by the retreating headland.

The interesting thing about the Twelve Apostles is that there aren’t actually twelve of them and there never have been. From the viewing platform it is possible to count seven and if you are in a boat or one of the helicopters that regularly buzz overhead you may count eleven of them. They were named ‘The Apostles’ because of their ability to attract tourists and the number twelve was added some time later. It’s a slowly evolving landscape. In 2005 a 70m stack collapsed into the sea and near the cliff base another one is gradually starting to form.

On the beach at Gibson Steps

Regardless of how many there are though, they make a spectacular sight. In the late afternoon sun we enjoyed amazing views from the lookout and also took the walk down Gibson Steps to the beach that affords a close view of one of the Apostle stacks. As the evening light was perhaps at its best we made it to Loch Ard Gorge named after a famous shipwreck and eventually to London Bridge. This rock formation was originally linked to the mainland by a natural bridge but collapsed in 1990 with terrified tourists stranded on the world’s newest island. They were eventually rescued by helicopter with an incredible story to tell!

Friday, 18 December 2015

Magnificent Melbourne

The first place I wanted to visit in Carlton was the Old Melbourne Gaol. Built in 1841, it was used until 1929 and then became a museum to 19th century justice. It’s a rather chilling experience exploring the bleak little cells and seeing the place where over 130 prisoners were hanged for the crimes. The most famous of them was the legendary bushranger Ned Kelly who heard the clang of the trap here in 1880. His last words before the moment are reputed to have been ‘Such is Life”.

Royal Exhibition Building

Just a short walk from the gaol is the pretty Carlton Gardens. Set amid the lawn and trees is the magnificent Royal Exhibition Building that was built in 1880. Australia’s first parliament was held here in 1901 and over a hundred years later it hosts everything from trade fairs to dance parties. Immediately behind the great hall is the Melbourne Museum which offers a grand sweep of Victoria’s natural and cultural histories. One of the most fascinating displays is the unusually large heart of the legendary race horse Phar Lap.

The following morning I returned to the same part of the city to experience the Queen Victoria Market in action. Operating for over 130 years, no visit to the city is quite complete without some shopping here. Whether you need fresh produce, meat, fish, clothing, souvenirs or jewellery you’ll find it at the Queen Vic. So after wandering the huge array of stalls for a couple of hours I made my way through Flagstaff Gardens and south down to where the mighty Yarra meanders its way under various bridges that connect Southbank Promenade to the city. I was going on a ferry ride.

Port of Williamstown

This little journey would take us initially past the Polly Woodside Maritime Museum named after the 1885 iron hulled merchant ship which is anchored outside. We then passed through the Docklands area which was the city’s main industrial docking area until the mid 1960’s. Thirty years later it was redeveloped with a studio apartment complex, retail and entertainment areas. After sliding under the mighty West Gate Bridge, we soon arrived at the historic seafaring town of Williamstown.

On a warm sunny day, the seaside charm was almost idyllic although I imagine that in another season it could be rather bleak and windswept! Either way though, there is an interesting history to explore by walking through the town and around the peninsula that overlooks Port Philip Bay. Instead of taking the train back to the city I took another ferry across the bay to St Kilda and after enjoying an ice cream and wonderful sunset, took one of the regular trams back to the city.

Bird feeding in the Dandenong Ranges

It was then time to explore beyond the city itself and the perfect place to start was a day trip into the Dandenong Ranges. Just 35km east of Melbourne, one of the highlights in this area is the restored steam train calling Puffing Billy. That aside, there is plenty of good bushwalking and wildlife spotting, including the 1000 Steps Track in the Ferntree Gully area. I did this hike which leads up to the One Tree Hill picnic ground and is true to its name! I also had time to complete the 7.5km loop through the pretty Sherbrooke Forest.

When I arrived the winter football season had finished but it was spring and summer was approaching. With world class stadiums, arenas, grounds and courts, Melbourne is the sporting capital of the country and I planned to enjoy iconic events such as the Melbourne Cup horse racing, international cricket at the MCG, Australian Tennis Open and the Formula One Grand Prix motor racing. Having read about and seen them on TV so it was a thrill to finally be able to experience them live. Like little ticks on my bucket list, I now knew what it was like to actually be there.

Australian Tennis Open

I decided that I just couldn’t leave Melbourne without exploring the stunning coastal scenery of Wilsons Promontory. So with another friend, we hired a car and set off southeast from the city to the small settlement of Tidal River on in the Wilsons Promontory National Park. From here, we pushed what is often a four day circuit of the rugged peninsula into what was a fantastic three day hike. A highlight of the circuit is undoubtedly the white sands of Waterloo Bay but the views from Boulder Range down to the southernmost point of the Australian mainland compete very well!

Southeast Point on Wilsons Promontory

On the way back to Melbourne, we detoured across the road bridge to Phillip Island. Apart from the rugged scenery and relaxed environment, there are two main reasons tourists arrive here: the Grand Prix motor racing circuit and the penguin colony. We visited the History of Motorsport Museum which focuses largely on the motorcycle racing that has been held on the island since 1928. Unfortunately time didn’t allow us to stay until dusk to see the penguins coming in but we enjoyed a walk around the windswept point called the Nobbies before continuing on our way.

Friday, 11 December 2015

South to Victoria

From Sydney it is a 14 hour bus journey to the Victorian capital of Melbourne. The route goes through the picturesque Australian capital of Canberra. A short break here enabled views across Lake Burley Griffin to Parliament House. It’s a destination that I’d love to visit again one day with more time and enjoy the treasures contained in the National Museum, Art Gallery and Mar Memorial. For now though, I was heading to Melbourne to house sit for my uncle, explore the sights and enjoy the various summer sporting events that the city hosts every year. 

Melbourne is a magnificent city that offers something for everyone. Whether you visit for the shopping, food, entertainment, sport, history or culture you are sure to feel a great sense of satisfaction here! As many people do, I started my exploration in the grid of streets that make up the central business district. Bourke street is the heart of this commercial precinct and this pedestrian mall was thick with trams, shoppers and the sounds of Peruvian bands busking in the spring sunshine.

Flinders Street Station

Just a few blocks away is the famous corner of Swanston and Flinders Streets. It’s here that the grand old St Paul’s Cathedral overlooks the flamboyant modern architecture of Federation Square. Just opposite the square is distinctive shape and colour of Flinders St Station which is the city’s major transport hub. And between them is the beginning of the Princes Bridge which traverses south of the muddy brown Yarra River.

Federation Square

There’s so much to see in Melbourne that it could literally keep you busy for weeks. Immediately southeast of the CBD is the vast Royal Botanic Gardens that includes Government House and the Shrine of Remembrance. I continued south from the gardens to Albert Park where the Formula 1 motor race speeds around the pretty lake in March each year. From there, it’s not far to the iconic suburb of St Kilda.

St Kilda is probably the best place in Melbourne if you like people watching. It always seems to attract an interesting cross section of locals and is also a popular place for backpackers. The palm-lined stroll along the foreshore offers wonderful vistas of Port Philip Bay and almost perennial briny sea breezes. The Luna Park amusement park was opened here in 1912 and contains the heritage-listed scenic railway which is in fact the oldest operating roller coaster in the world.

St Kilda foreshore

I took a day to explore the suburbs of Fitzroy and Carlton just north of the inner city. I started at the lovely Parliament House which offers free half hour tours and overlooks the pretty Fitzroy Gardens. The highlight here is Cook’s Cottage that is set amid English elm trees, flower beds, fountains and expansive lawns. This cottage belonged to Captain Cook’s parents and was shipped from Yorkshire in packing cases and carefully reconstructed in 1934. Nearly is the ornately carved Fairies Tree.

Yarra River and Melbourne Cricket Ground
From the Gardens, it’s only a short walk to the sporting precinct which contains the mighty Melbourne Cricket Ground. This huge stadium is one of the world’s great sporting venues and hosts both cricket and Australian Rules football matches. I’m planning on going to a couple of cricket matches over the summer while I’m here and especially looking forward to the Boxing Day test match. Just over the railway line is Melbourne Park which is where the Australian Open tennis is played each summer. 

Friday, 4 December 2015

Beautiful Sydney

The following day I started where the bus terminated at the rather dishevelled Circular Quay transport hub. The old Customs House built in 1885 is a handsome contrast and was the beginning of a pleasant walk through the heart of the city that took in the historic St James Church and St Mary’s Cathedral near the park. The detour to see the impressive Town Hall was worthwhile because of its fabulously ornate exterior is matched by the elaborate chamber room and concert hall inside.

Darling Harbour

From there it’s only a short walk across to Darling Harbour which is a modern redevelopment of what used to be an industrial dockland of factories, warehouses and shipyards. I found this area to be a rather confronting skyline of expressway flyovers, the convention centre, chain hotels and overpriced shops and restaurants but there are a few good attractions to be found such as the aquarium, maritime museum and the interactive Powerhouse science museum. I finished my day in the thriving Chinatown and tranquil oasis of the Chinese Garden of Friendship.

Chinese Garden of Friendship

No visit to Sydney is quite complete without a trip across the harbour so the next morning I took a ferry bound for the Manly on the northern Peninsula. After a few hours of exploring the beach and scenic walkway I headed to Taronga Zoo to enjoy both the animals and also the phenomenal views that the zoo has back across the harbour to the city.

Bird show at Taronga Zoo

Before leaving, there was something on the bucket list that needed to be ticked off: the spectacular Blue Mountains. The foothills begin 65km inland from the city and rise to an 1100m-high sandstone plateau from which numerous valleys have been gradually eroded. The slate-coloured tint that gives the mountains their name comes from a mist of fine oil that is exuded from the huge eucalyptus gum trees that form a dense canopy across the landscape. It’s a World Heritage listed area and makes a perfect day trip from Sydney.

Three Sisters of the Blue Mountains

Travelling with a friend, we decided to skip the expensive organised tours and jumped on a train to the region’s main town of Katoomba. From the train station, it’s a pleasant 2km walk to the visitor information centre and the Echo Point viewing platform. We did a few of the walks from Echo Point that offered spectacular views of the Jamison Valley and the Three Sisters rock formation. While they aren’t mountains like we have in New Zealand, there wasn’t any disappointment at all and if anything, I wished that we’d gone for the whole weekend instead of only a day.