Melbourne and the Great Ocean Road Trip Notes – October 2010

By popular request – not that I kept any notes:

The Great Ocean Road and the 12 Apostles: Regular readers will know that in the last few years, I’ve done the Yarra Valley, seen the little blue penguins at Philip Island and so the only thing missing was a trip out to the Great Ocean Road (GOR) and the Otways. We managed to cover most of the 248 kilometres from its unofficial start at Torquay, the official start at the ‘Arch’ and through to Port Campbell and London Bridge.

The GOR (officially the “B100 Surfcoast Highway”) is made up more or less of three coasts. The Torquay / Anglesea area is the start of the ‘Surf Coast’. The ‘Green Coast’ commences at the edge of the Otways and the most fascinating part of the GOR is the ‘Shipwreck Coast’ which, as its nickname suggest, was the location for a variety of wrecks, roughly fifty are known, likely more. The explorer / navigator Matthew Flinders had this to say about the area: “I have seldom seen a more fearful section of coastline.” He had good reason to be fearful. Many fellow sailors learned the hard way and often paid with their lives.

The GOR was built mainly using the labour of returned servicemen from the First World War. Roughly 3,000 diggers commenced work in September 1919 on what was thought at one stage to be something of a pipedream. But gradually the pipedream turned into reality and the GOR (as far as Lorne) was open to traffic in March 1922 with the entire road completed (through to Apollo Bay) and officially opened in 1932. Commemorating the workers on the GOR, no expense was spared on building a majestic arch at the official start of the GOR. Sorry, that was a typo – all expense was spared. Because the structure is really nothing but some super-sized fence posts (more or less) which form a rather basic gateway. Still, this is Australia and they revel in the simple and uncomplicated here.

Bells Beach was our first stop – it’s fame was a bit lost on me as I know of but never saw the movie ‘Point Break’. Yes, the regional round of some fantastic surfing competition is indeed held here most years and Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves speak reverentially of the giant wave that rips along the Pacific every fifty years or so but considering that that next place from Bells Beach is Tasmania and given that the movie was not filmed in Australia at all, it’s all a bit of a croc, if you ask me. Still, there it is.

Tea was taken on the shores of North Lorne beach. Lorne has a number of claims to fame – Rudyard Kipling went there and wrote about it – “Buy my hot-wood clematis,/ Buy a frond of fern, / Gathered where the Erskine leaps / Down the road to Lorne.” But the town’s biggest drawcard for which it apparently attracts a significant following is the annual ‘Pier to Pub’ swim. The Guinness Book of Records states that this is the largest open-water swimming race in the world and it’s only 1.2 kilometres long (not long for well conditioned swimmers). Entries are now capped at 4,000, such is the popularity of the event. They don’t go all at once, however. Everyone is separated into groups of around 300 people of similar age and graded according to their expected swim time. Waves of swimmers enter the water from a ramp near the pier at five to 10 minute intervals from 12.30pm to 2.15pm. If you’re interested, the ballot for entries opens on 1 November 2010 and the race itself (assuming you get picked) will be held on 8 January 2011.

At Koala Cove before lunch, it was fun to see about half a dozen koalas in the wild assuming a somewhat precarious (but seemingly comfortable) lotus position in the gum trees. Most were asleep and blissfully unaware of the inquisitive visitors below but occasionally there was movement in the form of prolonged scratching. One in particular was keen to pose for the cameras by staring dismissively at you – ‘Grumpy’ (as I call him) reminds me of an acquaintance of mine (who seemed pleased when I sent him the picture). The likeness is rather uncanny. One thing to remember – they are not ‘koala bears’. They are indeed arboreal herbivorous marsupials and taxonomically have nothing whatsoever to do with the ursa family or genus.

We had lunch at Apollo Bay – a typical seaside town. Nothing fancy, but an opportunity to cross off ‘flake and chips’ off the list of regional / national cuisines sampled along my various travels. I would much prefer blue cod but when in Oz, it’s either going to be flaks (i.e. shark) or whiting. Go figure.

After departing Apollo Bay, we headed along the Green Coast and in to the Great Otway National Park. In amongst the Otways is a cold climate rainforest (such things do exist) and because they are on heights away from the coast, the microclimate is distinctly different. Populated by magnificent myrtle beeches and tree ferns for the most part, there are some tracks around which we had a quick walk through. Although one could easily see many similar forests in New Zealand, the myrtle beeches are very tall and occasionally expire without warning. This is good news for the forest floor because over time things grow through the trees. And the continuous cycle of growth and development continues. Look out (if you can) for the carnivorous snail – it has a black shell with a white circular swirls around it. Rumour has it that if you are not careful they might eat you alive (the good news is that there would need to be hundred of them swarm on you).

And so, after a quick stop at Lavers Hill (where I am sad to report that someone was flying the Greek flag upside down), to the Apostles. Or rather to the ‘Sow and Piglets’ as they were originally called until 1922. Mutton Bird Island was designated as the ‘sow’ and the other columns the ‘piglets’. The name change was effected pretty much as a marketing exercise and obviously someone couldn’t count because the highest number of columns was nine (eight these days if you count the collapsed base of one). But, in marketing, if you are going to run with an idea, the big picture is what matters, not the details. On a day like we had (brilliantly fine), the scene is magnificent. The waves keep rolling in constantly and it’s a great location to take pictures of. Erosion remains a constant and earlier this year, some of the viewing platforms were closed due to their becoming unsafe. Naturally Parks Victoria are working urgently on a fix or new site. Also, up to 1,000 breeding pairs of Little Penguins are known to nest along the coast between the Twelve Apostles and London Bridge. If you’re lucky you might be able to see them – all we could see were the tracks from the beach to the nesting areas. Might be boring for a lot of you and I can understand if you find limestone as interesting as a five-day domestic cricket match but over two million visitors a year come here. It’s not hard to understand why.

We drove on to the next stop and the story of Loch Ard Gorge is an odd one – the Loch Ard was a clipper ship originating from Aberdeen. With 37 passengers and 17 crew aboard, it commenced its thirteen week voyage to Melbourne on 2 March 1878. By the end of May 1878, it was heading in to Bass Strait and approaching the treacherous bit of Victorian coastline. The voyagers were quite pleased by this and on the night of the 31st of May, had a small party on the vessel to celebrate almost making to Australia. This turned out to be very premature. In the wee small hours of 1 June, the ship encountered heavy fog and Captain Gibbs was unable to sight the Cape Otway lighthouse. He didn’t know how close to the coast he actually was and although he put men in the crows nest and at the bow to try and sight it, by the time the fog cleared, they saw breakers and rocks. Too late. The ship hit Mutton Bird Island, the impact sufficient to take the deck off with the masts and rigging came crashing down, killing some people on deck and preventing the lifeboats from being launched effectively. The ship sank within 15 minutes of striking the reef. And yes, the Captain went down with her. The only two survivors of the wreck were Eva Carmichael, who survived by clinging to a spar for five hours, and Thomas (Tom) R. Pearce, an apprentice who clung to the overturned hull of a lifeboat. Tom came ashore first .

Now this is a nice area if you are in to private beaches and the like but essentially the area is like a box with no way to climb up the almost vertical sides (no way of getting a decent foothold). So we figure Tom might well have been thinking that he was going to die a very slow death at this point. Any such thoughts would have been quickly put out of mind as he then heard Eva’s shouts and went back into the ocean to rescue her. According to his account of the disaster published much later, he got her to safety and left her in one of the many caves that are there. But he still needed to figure out a way to get out ! Tom, being an inventive lad then used various bits and pieces from the wreck to construct a sort of scaffold to get out of the gully and on to land. But if you’ve been the area, low lying scrub and no indication which way is where is not what you want when you want assistance. Luckily, he managed to head east and run in to a team of stockmen from the nearby Glenample Homestead. But the drama didn’t end there – when they went looking for Eva, she wasn’t in the gully either. She’d had another swig or two of brandy, climbed up the improvised scaffolding as well and also tried to get help. But this was an age before Lonely Planet and other guides and some helpful person or family member had helpfully told Eva that the natives in Australia practiced cannibalism quite regularly. So, upon hearing her rescuers, she did the inevitable thing and hid. And successfully evaded her rescuers for quite a few hours, apparently.

So did things end ‘happily ever after’ ? Alas, no. In those Victorian times, one was pressured to do the ‘right’ thing and Tom did the right thing and proposed to Eva. Sadly, she rejected his proposal, choosing to return to Ireland at the earliest possible opportunity (by ship, of course). Young Tom took it hard, we think, for he decided to join the merchant navy after that and continued his run of rotten luck as he was involved with two other shipwrecks in his time. Perhaps he should have just stayed on land (he did get married eventually to someone else related to the shipwreck).

Further down from Loch Ard Gorge is London Bridge. And you’ll need to update your history books again. London Bridge did most certainly fall down, by the way, on 15 January 1990 to be precise. But I don’t mean the one in London, England, I mean the one in Port Campbell, Victoria. To be completely accurate, the maps designate it as ‘London Arch’ but the locals called it London Bridge due to its resemblance with its namesake. There’s a funny story though about the day the arch collapsed. There were people crossing it just as it gave way and they ended up being stranded on the island. Luckily no one was hurt but the current infrastructure (helicopters and associated services etc.) didn’t exist. And with ocean racing through to Bass Strait (associated with the Sydney to Hobart Race), spare helicopters were not easy to come by. But when the Channel 7 News chopper came to visit them (not rescue them, just get the story), the stranded couple were very keen not to talk to the journos at all. This seemed a bit odd but the reasons for this shyness became clear when they were eventually retrieved – he’d pulled a sickie from work and she wasn’t his wife. Well, you get the picture.

Travelling back as the light started to fade, we had the pleasure of getting a snack at the rural town (big for the region) of Colac. It’s not exactly party central on a Sunday evening and the Thai restaurant was closed, the Chinese place looked a little dodgy, we didn’t want KFC, the foreigners went to Red Rooster and probably worked out that it wasn’t worth paying more for less so, by hook or by crook, we all ended up at McDonalds which was by far and away the most popular place within that 450 metre stretch of pavement. So much for the Colac Pie Cart and Milkshake Van, I guess. The highlight of the drive back was a remarkable full moon sitting on the horizon as we drove back in to Melbourne.

So, a few more places added to the travel map and a few decent shots as well ! Plus the remarkable sight of a Chinese tourist with her digital SLR taking pictures pretty much every ten seconds. Notably of cows in the paddocks. Bizarre. And people say that I take too many pictures…..

Shopping: How can you not in Melbourne ? That said, a number of the more flakey or unstable retailers seem to have their leases expire so there is some prominent retail space currently available at street level is any one is looking. The more established businesses have no such issue and are either digging in or refurbishing. One example in point is Myer which is undergoing a $300 million refurbishment of its flagship store which is currently more bomb site than boutique (and on some floors is as bad or worse than Target, at least that was the case last week). In terms of the rest of the CBD, it’s more or less the same without any major bright shiny things around the place. The usual haunts such as the outlets stores at Smith Street continues to provide good value relatively speaking. Possibly the biggest disappointment was the relocated DFO at South Beach (that’s next to the Hilton Melbourne and behind the Melbourne Convention Centre to you). Already in some financial difficulties, it rather resembles a more organised Melbourne Central than anything else but the shops are generally smaller than some of the Smith Street outlets and the range significantly smaller. Frankly, I really didn’t see a reason to go again.

Restaurant tip: We dined at Maha Bar and Grill. It’s tucked away in a narrow laneway of Flinders Street and part of the George Calombaris empire. In fact Maha is a joint venture between he and Shane Delia and focuses on Middle Eastern and Middle Eastern-inspired food. The menu format is similar to The Press Club and one needs to learn a few new words (such as ‘souffra’ in place of “kerasma”) but if you’ve dined at The Press Club, you know that going for the souffra is an excellent choice. The tone was set by the mezze board and Lebanese bread just out of the oven with a selection of olives, beetroot salad, a delicately flavoured small dish of white broad beans with citrus and dill sauce and grilled eggplant. In the middle of the board was lamb kibbeh for two served in shot glasses. The mixture intrigued and entertained all the senses – textures, flavours, fragrances, all very pleasant with a hint of distant mystique. The wines that accompanied the mezze board were an interesting combination of a Lebanese dry white (2007 Chateau Khoury ‘Reve Blanc’ – refreshing but not herbaceous) was paired with a French Marsanne – an interesting combination which at first didn’t seem to be very good until the Marsanne started to open up a bit more and develop some sweeter flavours.

Two entrees followed before we’d finished the mezze board – a couple of chicken wings (boned of course) stuff with pork on a salad of grilled corn and two prawn kaftas with a fresh tabbouleh on the side. The mint really accentuated the flavours of the dish and reminded me how awful and flavourless some of the retail versions can be. But I’d love to know how to stuff the chicken wings like that. You could win a lot of friends with that dish. The wine pairings for these two entrees were rather forgettable but I think we had a chardonnay from Geelong and a Spanish white. Oh, well, the food was delicious.

The main event was twelve-hour roasted lamb shoulder served with a spiced thin-bread salad (fattoush) and a lemon rice pilaf (which was highly addictive for me). Oh, did I forget to mention the grilled kingfish fillets as well ? All of this was paired with a young and fruity 2005 Vallpollicello wine from New South Wales (which I forgot, but for good reason) and a 2001 Bordeaux from a Haut-Brion producer (not the Chateau Haut-Brion, one of the other smaller producers in the region – Château Tour du Haut-Moulin to be precise). And it was good. Very good. All of it. I have to say that drinking a 2001 Haut Brion with some twelve-hour roasted lamb was a distinct pleasure and not one I wanted to end quickly.

The desert board itself was a trio of pleasures – Lebanese doughnuts stuffed with Turkish Delight, Pannacotta with a divine lemon honey and a chocolate and beetroot cake. Paired with two dessert wines (I can only remember one because I want to get it – the Torbreck “The Bothie” 2008 [a muscat wine but not overly floral]), it was amazing. The pannacotta and a glass of The Bothie would have been enough, really. It could have been a rather undignified sight as I tried to extract every little drop of the lemon honey out of the glass it was served in and ditto for the wine. Luckily, a sense of table decorum prevailed.

Needless to say, Maha comes highly recommended.

About TI

TI is based in Auckland, New Zealand. TI's somewhat eclectic interests include (but are certainly not limited to) legal humour (the law can be funny), good wine, the search for the best possible chocolate, alcoholic beverages, travel, commercial aircraft, photography, weird news stories and classical music.
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