APOLLO BAY, AUSTRALIA — We don’t much like stop-and-go driving, but that’s how you have to see the many sights strung along the famous Great Ocean Road.
Unless you have time for the 100km Great Ocean Walk, of course. But we were in a car, like everyone else.
We did start out the day with a peaceful walk in Melba Gully. In the middle of parched-yellow inland hills, there’s a pocket of rainforest with a walking track on a former tram line built to haul timber. Jessie Fry bought the land in 1927 and, when the walking track became popular with her friends, she opened a tea room and operated it into the 1950s.
The walk took us into a silent ravine crowded with tree ferns and thick myrtle beeches covered in moss. At Annie’s Cascade, a sign advised us to look for platypus. Platypus? That’s the kind of exotic animal you learn about in fourth grade but never dream you might see, and we didn’t. The 300-year-old Big Tree was equally elusive; it had toppled in a 2009 storm.
Back on the coast, our first stop in Port Campbell National Park was Gibson Steps, where a sign advised that there were 250 spaces in the car park. Alert — big-time tourist attraction ahead.
From the top of Gibson Steps, we could see it — the Twelve Apostles, limestone pillars that once were part of shoreline cliffs and stayed put as waves ate away the stone around them.
Down on the sand, we could see how soft the massive cliff was — just pre-beach, really. Most of the pillars had eroded into fanciful shapes, but one giant square block made it easy to see where it had come from. Pale purple coquina shells were scattered on the beach – for Beth, another flashback to grade school, when it was her favorite seashell.
The big stop was just up the road, where we would get a different view and, we hoped, information about local trees and geology at the national-park visitors center. But we had been spoiled by New Zealand’s giant Department of Conservation, which puts interpretive centers everywhere. Here, there was only a Twelve Apostles Kiosk, with toilets and a snack shop.
We did see a couple of rangers, talking drainage with a consultant, so we asked if that day’s breezes, so much gentler than the ones around Lorne and Torquay, were typical.
“No, you just got a good day,” one said. “Usually, they’re much worse, because there’s nothing between here and Antarctica.”
At Loch Ard Gorge, we saw where the Loch Ard sailing ship, full of immigrants from England, ran aground on Muttonbird Island and sank in 1878, just a few meters from shore. Only two teen-agers survived.
Once, the Twelve Apostles were known as the Sow and Piglets, with Muttonbird Island being the sow. Seems that wherever there’s a tourist attraction, there’s a PR person to improve it.
In Port Campbell, we stopped for a Moroccan lamb pie, frosted raspberry shortbread sandwich and cappuccino, and looked in vain for an interpretive center. It did have a beautiful bay with a sand beach and a nearby hostel that, as usual, had the best location in town.
Our next stop was London Bridge, where the middle section of an arched point has fallen into the sea. For the third time, we saw a couple from the former East Germany who had asked Torsten to take their photo, and finally we asked them to return the favor.
They told us they’d been coming to Australia and New Zealand every year for the last 14 years, alternating between countries and always devoting their entire six-week vacation to the trip.
The people are so friendly and nice, they said, and the scenery so wonderful. They had even considered immigrating to Australia’s sunny Gold Coast, but now they were too old.
It was an interesting conversation, because then they told us how Germany not only is unfriendly but is being ruined by immigrants, many of whom (one, most likely) have 35 identities to collect welfare, and others who are criminals and terrorists.
Torsten kept smiling but later wished he had noted that, in 1990, rich West Germany opened its borders to 16 million political and economic refugees — from East Germany — and that many East Germans had themselves turned into terrorists, firebombing the homes of Vietnamese workers in 1991 and 1992.
We thought it was pretty ironic that two people who weren’t even allowed to leave their own country until 1989 now are among the most privileged people on Earth, and yet they begrudge others a basic livelihood.
We think a lot about privilege on this trip, and about how lucky we are. We’re starting to see as many Chinese tourists as Germans, from China’s newly robust middle class. But many people are conspicuous by their absence, especially Africans, African-Americans and indigenous people of all kinds.
Our last stop was the Grotto, where acidic water has caused the cliff to sink into itself. Then we drove to Warrnambool, which had appeared the same size as Apollo Bay on the map but is much, much bigger.
View from the grotto.
Our Airbnb was a beautiful stone cottage with a patio in a flower-lined back yard, and we had it all to ourselves. We were thinking of cooking, but after nosing around the charming downtown, we went into the Liebig for some really nice Thai food — prawn toast, grilled salmon salad and a duck stir fry.
We were only a few steps outside the restaurant when we got reeled in by a new crepe shop, urged on by a couple of young women eating at a table outside.
Rachel, the chatty owner, whipped up a crepe stuffed with Nutella, banana and strawberries for us — then threw in two chocolate Tim Tam biscuits, an Australian favorite she thought we should try.
Meanwhile, the two friendly young women told us where to find the best beach in town. Sometimes, having a foreign accent really pays off.