that rapid aussie fix: the great ocean road, melbourne & sydney

A long long time ago, I traveled with an Aussie and he undersold Australia to me. He told me, “Skip it, there’re no mountains, go straight to New Zealand.” I wholeheartedly believed him, but since I had to fly over Australia to get there and would probably have to touch down anyway, I figured I should probably give it a chance. I expected dust, desert, deadly heat, more soul sucking beaches and a lot of things that wanted to kill me. Actually, this is exactly what I was expecting: 

It took me 48 hours to get from El Nido to Melbourne. I slept on chairs, airport floors, (“Ma’am? Ma’am? You can’t sleep here.”) and planes and only woke up for the officer announcing our descent into Melbourne and that it was currently a balmy 16C and lightly raining. That woke me up. That was the first surprise. I suppose, now that I think of it, it makes complete sense, since I was flying far away from the equator. What I’m trying to say is that I was set on Australian stereotypes and not so set on the geography of it all. Suddenly wearing a merino wool sweater and jeans seemed very appropriate. James met me in Arrivals, we hurried to the car and within 5 minutes of my humongous rant on how horrid living in the Manila Airport for 22 hours was, I looked out the window at the gray-brown landscape and shouted mid-sentence, “Look! Kangaroos!” I thought they’d be everywhere, but James says they’re pretty rare to see in the wild (but James says a lot of things… like drop bears are real). Regardless, Australia started to smile on me and continued to do so for the entire short time I was there.

A pocket of blue sky opened up and followed us along the Great Ocean Road all day, like Australia decided to give me a welcoming present. We rolled into Aireys Inlet to a rather ordinary looking lighthouse, with James playing some weird tune from some Australian TV show. I was looking at him like, this is what this lighthouse is famous for? Really? But here’s the song and I dare you not to be singing it all day, so be warned:

So… have you ever, ever felt like this?

The road is curvy enough to be fun with a few JAMES-look-where-you’re-going moments, but not quite curvy enough to be dangerous. It’s not the Highway to Hana. It’s not the road out of Hanoi (which is good because that one nearly killed me). The Great Ocean Road has earned its right as one of the world’s greatest road trips. 

We careened around a corner and found a strange little beach of smoothed rocks where people had built them into towers. We made our own, and I’d like to point out that Australia (for a brief time) sported a little rock tower with some Inukshuk inspiration. We’re calling this place the Pebble Citadel -we couldn’t come up with anything better because we had better things to do. Tough.

There are plenty of tourists, but nowhere near enough for it to be crowded, especially if you start early in the morning, because you beat all the tour buses. Gibson’s Steps lead down to a beach with a couple of Apostles being battered by wind and spray and if you wander 500m off course, you more or less have it all to yourself. 

We stayed in Port Campbell and had a dinner of kangaroo steak (actually pretty tasty) and other Western deliciousness. As in, it wasn’t chicken and rice, or Pringles or Oreos, which was refreshing. We headed back to the Apostles to watch sunset, which was underwhelming, windy and cold, but it still decided to provide me with a triple rainbow. A triple rainbow (nope, not in these photos). 

And at that point, I decided Australia must love me. That was the only logical conclusion, really. In the dark on the way back, chattering away, I looked ahead and two glowing eyes met mine. A kangaroo shape just sitting in the road. All I got out was, “Roo! Roo! Roo!” before James braked hard, swerved a little and missed it. “Wallabies,” he said, “I told you -they just jump out of the bushes straight into your car. They’re the stupidest animals.” We really were condensing the Australian experience. 

The next day I woke up to some strange noise outside the window. A bird, or an insect or I don’t know. “What’s that?” I asked, and he said calmly, “Probably something that wants you dead.” Charming. We drove out to the Grotto and the Bay of Islands, which were both deserted in the morning. We ate “fish’n’chups” and calamari on the beach in Apollo Bay. You buy them according to weight. They do things very strangely here. The seagulls are relentless -it gives me a deeper understanding of Finding Nemo. Mine. I scoffed down Fairy Floss and Lamington ice cream and tried the vegemite flavour. Vegemite ice cream is good, until you get vegemite aftertaste. 

Breakfast on Australia Day was meat pie and lamington. I brought back both to a table and copied James as he poured ketchup on his meat pie (OK, weird?). And then he looked at me like I was a lunatic when I reached for a fork and knife. It’s the same look I give Europeans when they try to use a fork and knife to eat a burger in North America. What are you doing, mate? So after I’d licked all the ketchup and grease off my fingers and stuffed my face with a healthy portion of coconut-chocolately goodness, we kept going. We stopped at Cape Otway and started koala hunting. It’s actually really easy to find koalas, because all you need to do is locate the groups of people all looking upwards. Koalas are usually high up in the trees, sleeping. They spend their entire time eating and sleeping. These creatures have it sorted, except how they managed to evolve to be so picky as to only eat one type of tree leaf or die, that’s a failure. This little guy was about 10ft up, which is just about as perfect as I’m ever going to get without living in a zoo for a few days. I’m positive this wasn’t a drop bear, otherwise I would have stood well clear…

After wandering the signature (touristy) Hosier Lane, we had a lunch of lamb, beer and ravioli followed by TimTams on the beach. And then James left for the airport (which sucked, losing a travel buddy the first time sucks. Losing them again really sucks). I spent the rest of Australia Day with a Couchsurfing host who took me out for beers, of which I chose three of the girliest flavours on the menu (chocolate cinnamon, mango and pine -the last one tasted like home). The next day I kitted myself out for New Zealand. Bigger backpack, hiking boots, stove. The works. I watched the Australian Open in Federation Square, got to the Brighton Beach Boxes 20 minutes before the tour buses and then my stay in Victoria was over all too soon. I didn’t think I would like Australia. Not this much anyway. 

I flew into Sydney and another Couchsurfing host was nice enough to pick me up and drive me to their place in Campbelltown, which is a pretty long drive (faith in humanity!). I stayed with them for 5 nights and they made my entire stay. I got the hang of the train system quickly, mostly because they left me notes on how to do it down to every last detail. I chased down Bondi Beach before a storm rolled in, bought a mango the side of my head, and then made it to the harbour.

In the evening I headed to CBD to catch a sunset, which turned out to be more like storm watching. I walked away from the Opera House and the bridge, the city behind me with a backdrop of flat pink-tinged gray. It was rumbling and flashing and I could hear cracks of lightning, even though the rain hadn’t started. I walked barefoot along Sydney’s equivalent of a Seawall in an inch of warm rainwater, tripod and camera in hand (got a couple of what is this gypsy doing in the city? looks for the bare feet), and joined two other photographers at the point, who I made friends with. I think I’m more approachable when I’m being a goofball, which I was: barefoot standing in 2 inches of water, MEC rain cover over my head like some kind of dorky hat, dress tied in a knot at the bottom to keep from dragging. They were trying to catch lightning strikes. I wasn’t. They didn’t catch any. Guess who did?

Dorky hat girl. The older guy didn’t believe me, so I showed him and his response was (not kidding), “Crikey!” He gave me a ride back to the train station since it was pouring so hard. The next day I broke my boots in “bush walking” in the Blue Mountains with Alan and Kim, my awesome hosts that were nice enough to take me there. They took me up the Giant Stairway to see the 3 Sisters. Alan is quite the photographer, so besides nerding out over all our gear (more his than mine), we bonded over hauling it up and down lots of stairs. Here are a few photos he took that day -can you find me in the first shot?

To be honest, I wasn’t really prepared to like Australia. I was prepared to endure it. But the reality was this was the best 9 days I’ve had in a long time. And it goes to show that everything anyone has ever told you about a place is probably a little bit wrong and warped, so you should go there yourself and see if it’s true. Everything I thought of about Australia came from Finding Nemo, Steve Irwin, James (who tells lies) and a bunch of clips from Planet Earth showing kangaroos licking their own wrists to keep from dying from heat. 

It’s funny that I thought the whole country was some kind of dusty desert, inhabited by a lot of creepy-crawlies and poisonous snakes and not much else. I guess it’s the exact same ignorance that we laugh about when people ask Canadians if they still live in igloos (not a chance, heard of climate change?). I thought I was well-traveled enough to be over that kind of ignorance. But, I guess not. Stereotypes have been shattered, and I was one sad girl to get on the next plane, which is saying something, because the next plane was headed towards mountains and my tent. So in a sense, we can say the next plane was flying to what I think of as home

Cheers from Sydney, Australia. 

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