Saturday, January 17, 2009

Adventures in Oz III: Melbourne and More

We spent a week in Melbourne and 5 days on the road west of there before heading back to NZ. Melbourne struck us as a pleasanter place to live than Sydney, but for the things we were interested in (bike races excepted!), not as interesting as a tourist destination.
Nonetheless, we enjoyed a calm week in a B&B in East Melbourne and had a nice walk
through its interesting 19th century architecture and near downtown on the Yarra River
with its new pedestrian walkway. We even slowed down occasionally to enjoy Melbourne's cafe culture, which is everywhere,
and read several Australian novels. It's interesting to read books where the characters go through neighborhoods you've actually seen, in a culture you've come to know, if only a little.
And of course we thoroughly enjoyed getting around town on the trams, both old and new.
Melbourne has the fourth largest system in the world, and it was an enjoyable way to get around, though "rapid transit" it's not.

After a week and a half in the Sydney area we had not, of course, seen any of the animals Australia is known for. Cruising the streets of Melbourne did not turn up any kangaroos either, so we headed to the zoo and caught Joe Cool taking it easy,
and even some teeny-tiny penguins nearby.
But of course you can see animals like this in zoos anywhere, so it was off to the wilds to see if we could find some in their natural habitat. And did we ever! First were the koalas. We were driving along when all of a sudden there was a "bear jam" (traffic jam caused by tourists stopping to watch bears) as good as any in the Montana Rockies. Sure enough, there were 9 or 10 koalas ten feet above our heads in the eucalyptus trees.
Koalas sleep an average of 20 hours a day, but we found one that was wide awake and not happy with the eucalyptus leaves on his branch. Now if he could just get to that next branch . . .

Next were the emus and kangaroos, which we tracked down in a park that filled an extinct volcanic crater, about 250 km west of Melbourne. The kangaroos were deep in the bush, and the first one
we glimpsed looked rather like a deer. But he was kangaroo, all right,

and even hopped down to the road after a bit. But kangaroos are all over the place in Australia,
and two days later, we found a lawn that was pretty much infested with the little hoppers.

Our trip wasn't all roos and koalas, however. The Great Ocean Road is a famous road built during the Depression as a make-work project. It occasionally is down at sea level, as seen here from above, but much of it is on bluffs
with turnoffs for views and walks. The route started with some attractive beaches, but the further west we went, the more spectacular they got.

Rather than talk about it, we'll let the photos tell the story of our road trip there.

One of the most interesting spots was near the end, called London Bridge.
It used to be a double span, but one day in 1999 the left span collapsed with no warning. Not even for the two tourists who were on the end of the point, who had to be rescued by helicopter a few hours later.
It's hard to convey the power of the sea, pictures like this of the waves breaking don't do justice without the full sound and fury of the thundering surf, but look again at London Bridge. All that stone is gone, in less than ten years. Totally gone!

After three days of sea views and one short visit to a rainforest as the road crossed the Otway Mountains, in the rain no less, we turned north to the Grampians.
We saw them from the car for about an hour before we got there -- here's the view, with the aptly-named Mount Abrupt on the right.
The Grampians were full of interesting hikes, including one through an area they call the Grand Canyon, another to a spot called
The Balconies, where Louise is checking out the Upper Tier, and another
nameless rock where Guru Jeff mellowed out. Serious forest fires went through here just two years ago, but much of the forest we hiked through had recovered splendidly.
We closed out with a drive to Mount Difficult, with these views that were not at all difficult to enjoy.

One final destination stood between us and the airport, Ballarat. We found a classic backroad lined with gum trees, and checked out a town that once mined millions of dollars of gold. The downtown still has many marvelous buildings

built with the mineral wealth they extracted, and the sculpture they dropped all over the main street.
This statue of Queen Victoria had four bas-reliefs illustrating high points of her life. Bet you didn't know that one of them was
her signing of the Australian Constitution Act in 1900, memorialized here in bronze.

Oh yes, there was one more matter to deal with. Ballarat just happened to be hosting the Australian National Road Championships. As in a bike race to see who was the best rider in Oz. 159 riders started, but about half quit before the finish line 162 km later when they found themselves too far behind the peloton. The course was 10 km around, so we got to see bits of the race 16 times as they swooped by, averaging 40 kph for the first dozen laps and then about 37-38 for the last few (24-25 mph). Not bad for a course with a 600' climb every six-mile circuit. With half a dozen professionals in the race, guys who ride with the best in Europe, an amateur racer who works in a Sydney bike shop pulled off the win, Peter McDonald.

And now it's time for us two amateurs to get back on our bike. Next week, we'll let you know how it went.

No comments: