September 21 – 24, 2013
Overnight flight always looks good on paper – assuming you are a sound sleeper on flight. I am not one of those lucky people, and I arrived Melbourne at 8 am sleep deprived like always after a long-haul flight. Not helping matter was we would be spending the night at Wilsons Promontory, a good 230 km away.
It was not just the first day; our whole itinerary in Victoria was extremely ambitious. For the upcoming four days I would be driving more than 1,000 km across the state, from Wilsons Promontory in the east to the Great Ocean Road on the opposite direction, before going back to Melbourne to meet up with Becky. A more sensible plan was probably to choose from one of the above and spend more time in Melbourne, but we were determined to visit both. Although Melbourne is nothing like the crowded concrete jungle that is Hong Kong, I wanted to get away from it as quickly as possible. The city, on paper at least, didn’t offer enough to pull me away from the countryside.
Our rental car, a Nissan compact from East Coast, cost $40 each day (all price on this trip will be in AUD unless otherwise noted).
Queen Victoria Market
One regret we had was not having the time to try out Melbourne’s food scene. To begin, the city seems to be blessed with an abundance of good breakfast options, but for our sole chance for breakfast in town it could only be the Queen Victoria Market. Established in 1878, this historic landmark is reputably the largest open-air market in the southern hemisphere and sells a wide variety of products, from food, souvenir, clothes to even pet, but we were only concerned with its edible offerings.
It was difficult not to compare this market with Borough Market after having visited London earlier in the year. Queen Vic is much larger in size but light on ready-to-eat food. We stocked up on bread, cheese, ham, chocolate and donut for our road trip. For immediate consumption we had two run-of-the-mill sandwiches and half a dozen oysters each. The oysters were from Coffin Bay and Bruny Island and we much prefer the latter for its creamier taste.
When I mentioned I was about to travel to Victoria, the consensual suggestion was I should make Phillip Island and its penguin parade as a priority. Every night a rookery of penguins emerges from the ocean and waddles along a beach to their burrows. 3.5 million people are drawn to this spectacle annually, but I don’t find the idea of paying $23 to sit on a bench to watch penguins from afar particularly enticing.
Good beaches, wildlife sighting and ample of hiking options – those were what I was looking for. My desktop research yielded Wilsons Promontory as the closest fit, which Becky also highly recommended. Also known as the Prom, the peninsula where the park is located represents the southern most tip of Australia mainland.
Going east to the Prom from Melbourne, more than half of the almost-three-hour driving time was spent on the surprisingly full-of-potholes A440. No admission fee is required to visit the park. Tidal River, the park’s camping ground, was another half-hour drive south. At 4 pm we arrived at our first stop, Tidal Overlook, a trail that offers a panoramic view of Tidal River, Norman and Leonard Bays. The climb took 30 minutes.
Across the road, Lilly Pilly Gully is a flat 2.6 km trail that leads to the park’s rainforest interior. What should be an easy walk brought my wife a brief period of anxiety when the sky began to get dark on our return leg. She wanted nothing to do with being surrounded by towering trees in the dark. We emerged back to the car park under a dim glow of twilight remaining in the sky.
We spent the night at Buln Buln Cabins, located about 15 minutes outside of the park.
Waking up to heavy rain gave us serious concern. Should we leave the Prom? Carry an umbrella and brave it through? Wait indoor? At the end there was only one choice – we would make the best use of the day, rain or shine. Gratefully the sky cleared up shortly after we entered the park.
Unlike other trails, there was no signage for the Prom Wildlife Walk. The sighting of an emu and a kangaroo on a large grass field prompting us to stop. After crossing the excrement-filled field, we followed a trail through some shrubs and onto a large open field where emus and kangaroos roamed freely. I had never seen so many wildlife before; I lost count the number of kangaroos after the first dozen.
We had seen the rainforest. We had seen the wildlife. Time to hit the beach. We started out from Picnic Bay, where we bumped into a wombat, onward to Whisky Bay, then finally to Squeaky Beach, famous for its rounded quartz sand that makes a squeaky sound when being stepped on. Of the three I found Whisky Bay to be the most beautiful, and I wished I could lie on its shore with my wife for the rest of the day. It felt a little unreal we could have this place all to ourselves with nobody else in sight. Hong Kong’s beaches, besides ones in remote areas like Sai Kung, are always packed with people and garbage.
Alas time is never enough. We had to be on our way to Balgownie Estate Winery in the Yarra Valley, 240 km away. The prospect of a night of wine and hot food (no more bread and ham from Queen Vic), not to mention spending the night at a winery for the first time ($180; room and wine tasting for two), motivated me to step hard on the gas, potholes be damned.
It felt wrong to wake up at a winery and begin the day with anything other than wine, especially when it was on the house. Shiraz was the obvious choice, but since we already had a bottle the previous night we tried something different for this round. None of the other varieties (Pinot Noir, Merlot/ Cabinet Sauvignon blend, Chardonnay) impressed until we tried the sparkling Shiraz. When in doubt, always go for Shiraz in Australia.
We needed a break from wine tasting. To satisfy my wife’s wish to see koalas, we checked out the nearby Healesville Sanctuary ($27). I have always had an unfavorable impression of zoos. I understand they serve scientific and preservation purposes, but I have a hard time enjoying the presence of animals in captivity. Healesville Sanctuary’s bushland location mitigated some of the unpleasant vibe. It is still a zoo, but one that feels more like a park than a jail. It also has to be said that we would be hard pressed to find native fauna like papyrus and Tasmanian devil out in the wild.
Back to the day’s main objective. We resumed our food trail at the Yarra Valley Dairy – after passing through countless cattle ranches these past few days, our eagerness to try some cheese had reached an apex. The cheese shop, housed in a 100 year-old milking shed, was charmingly rustic but belied the expensive price tag of its products. In my daily routine AUD $27 can buy at least three days of lunches, yet that’s what I shelled out for a plate of cheese at Yarra Valley Dairy. The cheese was delicious, but it was another reminder that the Yarra Valley is crazily expensive.
A few disappointing stops later (ex: Yarra Valley Chocolaterie), it was time to decide on one last place to visit before leaving the Yarra Valley. Why did we not stay another night at a winery? We could only complete our ambitious plan to cover both the Prom and the Great Ocean Road by efficiently using our time, which meant hitting the road at night instead of having a proper dinner. And because we needed to leave this area before we caused irreversible damage to our budget.
I decided on De Bortoli Winery. A picture of the winery in our visitor information booklet caught my eye – its location on a hill slope seemed like a scenic location to enjoy the afternoon’s last hour of sunlight. If its wine were any good then that’s icing on the cake.
The wine tasting cost $5 per person. If we made any purchase those $10 would be reimbursed. Although not particularly enticed by the choices, we picked a bottle of its 2011 Chardonnay ($20). Afterward we walked off the effect of the alcohol at De Bortoli’s beautiful vineyard that stretched across several hill slopes. Life doesn’t get much better than this – greenery, fresh air, wine and companion. If only time could stop passing by so fast.
Watching the sun set was nice and all, but it also signaled the beginning of our 200 km drive to Lorne, a town along the Great Ocean Road.
We grabbed a box of Classic Roast Chicken at a Red Rooster drive-thru. It was an unmitigated disaster. Drenched by a watery gravy, the chicken had the texture of sand paper and taste of stale beef stew.
The fun of the drive began after freeway M1 was in my rear view mirror. What followed was the B100, the main stretch of the coastal road between Torquay and Warrnambool. Navigating the road’s many hairpin turns was all the more thrilling in the absence of street light.
The time was 20:40 when Lorne appeared in front of us. We walked into the Grand Pacific Hotel and got a double room for $100. For dinner we went to the only place in town still opened, an Asian noodle shop called Chopstix. The Indonesian Mie Goreng ($17) we ordered was unauthentic but filling.
Great Ocean Road
We had to start our day early, 6:30 to be precise, because we were to meet up with Becky at 14:30. That would leave as eight hours to complete the Great Ocean Road then drive back to Melbourne.
How different it was to resume driving on the Great Ocean Road in the morning. What’s ahead of me was no longer unforeseeable and sudden twists and turns in the dark. With the aid of sunlight, I could see far and wide, as a gentle blanket of sunlight basking over everything, including the deep blue sea on our left.
After passing by Apollo Bay, we made a detour into the Great Otway National Park, where we saw a wild koala carrying on its back an infant koala. We gave the Cape Otway Lighthouse a pass because it was not yet opened when we arrived at its gate at 8:30.
Despite our early start, the time was already 11 am when we entered Port Campbell National Park, the park that features the world-famous limestone formations like the Twelves Apostles and Loch Ard Gorge. I couldn’t fathom how the past 2.5 hours just vanished without a trace, before recalling I stopped at almost every lookout along the way.
No admission fee is required to see the Twelve Apostles. Despite the catchy moniker, there have only ever been nine limestone stacks, and one of them had collapsed in 2005. Between the constant wave and the strong wind, it might be just a matter of time before the rest of the apostles crumble into the sea as well.
We also visited the nearby Loch Ard Gorge. Even though there are no lacking of photos of both sites online, I was taken aback by both their grandeur and vulnerability. Glad we had stuck with our plan – it would be a pity to have traveled all the way to Victoria yet somehow not seeing these limestone stacks in person.
The time was 12:20, which left me with slightly more than two hours to cover the 240 km drive through A1 and M1. This inland route was a huge bore, passing by nothing but cattle ranch and farmland. The lack of diversion allowed me to step on the gas harder and we thankfully made it back to Melbourne on schedule.
Becky suggested to bring us to her favorite coffee shop near Federation Square, but what we really needed was some food since we hadn’t eaten anything besides stale bread bought three days earlier. We decided to check out Prahran Market, another century-old market which has recently undergone renovation. Many stalls were already closed for the day when we arrived at 4 pm. We grabbed some fresh Tasmanian oysters again, along with a bowl of mussels in coconut broth. The oysters were not very fresh while the cooked mussels were much too salty for our liking.
Before going for another round of food (I Carusi II in St Kilda – pretty good pizza), we headed down to Dendy Street Beach in the suburb Brighton, famous for its 82 painted bathing boxes. As the fiery sun disappeared upon the horizon, the first leg of our Australia trip came to a close and it couldn’t have begun any better.