HALLS GAP, AUSTRALIA — As has become a habit recently, we took it easy in the morning and got out of our cottage at the last possible minute.
We planned to hike the Pinnacles trail in Grampians National Park and arrived at the Sundial car park around 11am. It was the Labour Day holiday weekend in Victoria, and when we got there, it was almost full.
It was a hot and sunny day, but the trail wasn’t that steep at first, and we hiked along in relative solitude. It was fun to wind our way around boulders, which got bigger and bigger. The landscape reminded us of Germany’s Sächsische Schweiz (Saxon Switzerland) National Park, where forested valleys allow glimpses of tall spires and rock formations.
We did pass a woman in a cast with her young daughter, and she asked us to tell her husband and two young sons that they’d be waiting and not to worry, since they’d already reached their pinnacle.
It turned out everyone was at the top, climbing around a massive pile of rock and taking in the view from an overlook that stuck out over the mountain enough to make your legs go a little rubbery.
On the way back, we came across two Aussie families who had stopped to let their kids play on a trailside rock formation — a reminder to enjoy the journey as well as the goal.
Back at the car park, cars were now parked well down the road. We’d been seeing a lot of trucks with kangaroo grilles, and one truck in the lot looked like something Crocodile Dundee might drive, with a big grille, winch, spotlights and extra fuel canisters.
It made us wonder if kangaroos were really that dangerous, so Beth asked another driver with a grille if he’d ever hit one. He looked a little sheepish. “No, they usually just hop away, but I know people who’ve hit ’em,” he said. Hmm … boys with toys?
We had planned to do a short loop starting from the Wonderland car park, but we changed our mind when we saw cars lining the road half a mile from the car park.
Instead, we went to the Cultural Centre Brambuk, a striking building designed to evoke the wings of a cockatoo. It was a good block from a visitor center with cafe and gift shop, reached only by a winding path, and you had to know it was there. Unsurprisingly, there were few visitors.
It probably is unfair to compare the displays there to New Zealand’s Waitangi Treaty Grounds, but Torsten was struck by how much more emotionally satisfying it was to learn the history told by people rather than by the exhibits used at Brambuk.
The history between European settlers and Australia’s original inhabitants is by now very familiar: When Europeans arrived, they thought they had “discovered” the land, though aboriginal people had lived there for as many as 40,000 years.
Aboriginals had developed a keen sense of living with the land: They recognized six seasons based on the life cycle of animals, insects and plants; and performed controlled burns, or “fire-stick farming,” to keep forests open and encourage growth of certain plants, which brought in game for food, mainly kangaroos and emus.
Europeans came in like a wrecking ball: To avoid food competition for their sheep, they killed large numbers of kangaroos and emus, eliminating a food source for the aboriginal people. The sheep then compacted the soil, killing yam-daisy tubers, another important food source. When the aboriginal people took sheep to stay alive, they were regarded as thieves.
Today, some dairy farmers are adopting controlled burns with great results — go figure!
To finish our visit, Torsten tried to play a didgeridoo, and he got a few notes out. Then it was time for our 2-hour drive to Ballarat, once the hub of the Victorian gold fields.
The local botanic garden was holding its annual Begonia Festival, and we caught the end of the day’s festivities. In the herb section, we sniffed and tasted, including a curry plant, whose leaves smell like a tasty Indian dish. At the impressive begonia display, the extravagant colors made it feel like Carnival in Rio, and Beth could hardly believe the size of the flowers.
There were also free tram rides we didn’t take because our stomachs told us it was time for dinner — and we had to walk back halfway around a lake to the motel.
At least we got to see the site of the 1956 Olympic rowing and canoeing competitions, which took place on Lake Wendouree. For the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the town created a little Olympic corner, with Olympic rings placed on a boomerang, a small cauldron and plaques for local Olympians, mostly competing in badminton and basketball.
Not far from the Olympic site, we saw several large clusters of quarreling sulphur-crested cockatoos, pure white with a yellow curl rising from their heads. At first, we were delighted to see one or two, but they quickly multiplied and turned out to be noisier than the crows who frequent trees along the Mississippi River, constantly making an ugly croak.
We heard Australian cockatoos are even worse than New Zealand keas, notorious for sharpening their beaks on furniture and wooden window sills and even stripping insulated power lines.
For dinner, we drove to downtown Ballarat, past rows of lovely little cottages adorned with wrought-iron lace railings. There was once a lot of money in Ballarat, we realized when we got downtown and saw its rows of imposing banks, storefronts and trading halls.
Yelp alerted us to a restaurant Beth thought sounded promising: Hop Temple. It was on a courtyard at the end of a narrow lane covered by a canopy of umbrellas, and apparently it once was a garage. Now, it’s a casual space with many bearded men in flannel shirts — seems craft-beer fashion is universal.
The new beer on tap was Mountain Goat Hop Hash IPA, and the brewer said it was a new-to-Australia process involving a resinous hop byproduct that’s not unlike hashish . . . so Beth got a pot of it (remember, that’s really what they call a small beer). It was yummy, so she got another one.
It went well with her barbecued pork ribs, and Torsten liked his burger, too. Then we called it a day.