Great and Oceany
Warrnambool - Melbourne, 23rd December
Today is the 23rd of December 2019. Let’s go back in time exactly 100 years.
Imagine first that you live in a small village on the southern coast of the Australian state Victoria, and more precisely between Warrnambool and Allansford. The region is so inaccessible that the only way for you to get to your house is via water through the fierce ocean currents and up the vertical coastal cliffs. It doesn’t seem like you have an easy or safe life.
Now imagine you were a soldier in the Great war. A war the world had never seen before. A war that swallowed everything and everyone. Cruel and irreversible. But it has ended. And you have returned to your homeland. And now what? What is your life supposed to look like after such events? If in those few years, your participation in the war was of great help to your home and society, what is expected from you now?
Three thousand men, returning from the war, found their salvation in the resolution to the transport problems of the local population. By hand, they dug through the coastal cliffs and built this road. With three kilometres each month, they left behind their contribution. And they dedicated every centimetre to the fallen in the war. Three years and “eternal memory”! The biggest war memorial in the world and a national treasure.
On this winding road of 243 kilometres, there are over 35 stops. Stops with views. Ocean, cliffs and erosion. It was military respect that brought people here but Nature is the one keeping them. She pulls in people to admire and remember. A symbiosis.
The Great Ocean Road.
This is not one of Australia’s sights that a person can’t miss just like that. You need to pass it anyway to get to Melbourne. But during this time of the year, two days before Christmas, we are not the only tourists passing through these lands. We get up early, eat breakfast quickly and we’re ready to leave before everyone else - to get there before the crowds.
The views will be beautiful and plenty, but Australia has decided to fill our experiences with all sorts of weirdness. Today, the star of the show is the weather … I am sure you remember it is currently the height of summer here. Only a few days ago, we barely survived the heat in Adelaide. Well, this morning the temperature of the summer morning in Australia is lower than the winter evening in Bulgaria. 11 degrees here; 13 - there.
The Bay of Islands
This is the first stop on the Great Ocean Road and we will respect it with a visit. The bay unfolds on 32 kilometres of the coast and offers unique geological formations. Well, all stops today will show us exactly that, but this one is the first one. We can enjoy it in calm. There isn’t a single tourist around us as if this place was dedicated to only be “ours”.
The contrast between the colours is like a post-Photoshop picture. The earth is rusty and the blue of the water is slightly grey. The saturation of the colours is permanently embedded in our memories. Islands in tall and thin postures stand out of the water. The erosion has taken their clothes down to the underskirts - layered and in flamboyant lace.
The wind has also started us off since the morning. Perfect to blow away the webs in our head - they build up easily with constant travelling, late nights and early morning.
Bertie quickly travels down the map and parks us on the second stop for the day. We all know what the world “grotto” means in the English language. But just in case you don’t, the dictionary says: “a picturesque or artificial cave”. I, as a typical foreigner, learn such words through the true day-to-day and communication with the natives. So this word to me is only connected to the Christmas markets. The place where children get to meet Santa Clause and tell him their long wish list - Santa’s Grotto. Therefore, I am very curious about what we’ll see here.
After a short walk down you enter into the picturesque lair. According to the signs, this is a part-cave, part-archway, part-blowholes. The ocean gives you the opportunity to collect all experiences into one. And according to the pictures, it has done well. The waves aren’t too wild this morning - we can get down to the opening to see the show in its true glory. The archway is a perfect frame for the waves breaking on the other side and filling our entire field of view. Some magical creatures might actually live here. It won’t be our Santa Claus, but it could be his Aboriginal cousin.
The London Bridge
The London Bridge used to be exactly that - a double arch into the ocean. But in 1990 the erosion destroyed the first arch and it fell, disclosing a scandal. Two New Zealanders were out walking and were left isolated in the middle of the ocean when the huge landmass collapsed into the water. It took hours for the rescue services to find them and lift them up in a helicopter. Where is the gossip, you ask? It is said, that the two love-birds, were actually on a secret trip as they were both married, not to each other … They say these assumptions haven’t been confirmed, but the rumours are still spread to this day on the Great Ocean Road.
Now in front of us, is only one arch in the ocean. They still call it a “Bridge”, but if it doesn’t connect anything, what sort of bridge is it? Maybe that’s why they are considering changing the name to the London Arch.
This stop has no fantastic history or gossip links. It relies only on its natural beauty to attract people. We walk down from high up and a different cliff opens up in front of us. Most places on the Road resemble canyons - both horizontally and vertically they are straight and flat. As if someone cut them with a knife. Even by the formations in the water, it is obvious they were once part of the mainland, as they are just as tall and flat on the surface.
But here, the rock is much more natural and smoothly folded. The colour is also lighter than its surroundings. And if the arch itself wasn’t in the centre of the unpredictable oceanic element, then weddings would have probably been held under it. Just imagine the pictures - the bride and groom in lavish outfits and behind them, huge waves break inside the “frame” of the wedding arch.
It is funny how our entire tour today revolves around an oxymoron. We have come to see what the ocean has created by destruction. It is the same with this cave. It has dug and dug for millions of years so we can now see a thin and long gap into the cliff. In the beginning, the ocean left an archway by the opening as a “welcome to the cave”. But later on, it decided it was outdated and took it down. Although it wasn’t a responsible builder as it didn’t clean up the mess and left all the fallen rock “hidden” under the water. Like when one sweeps the dirt under the sofa - a lazy job.
Today, the current continues to enter into the thin gap with great strength. Down in the cave, the sound of the breaking waves amplifies and travels back to us. Like thunder! And when I say “a thin gap” - it is probably about 50 meters wide. But compared to the 32-kilometre bay we saw earlier this morning, this is just like the eye of a small needle.
After the countless islands, arches and caves, all of a sudden we stumble across some monsters. In front of us is the petrified back of a huge creature. Bigger than the famous megafauna of Australia. A mega-whale, stuck in the shallows and left here eternally. His spine jagged - by birth or because of the centuries spent here?
Actually, being stuck here may not have been an accident for this beast. He is guarding something. Positioned just at the opening of the bay, and in the far distance, we can just see a cave. From its huge mouth hang countless sharp and black stalactites. It seems like the razorback monster guards the toothed one. Meanwhile, the ocean helps with a constant haze - the spray of the breaking waves stops the clear view of the cave.
Loch Ard Gorge
Bertie won’t be moving this time. Loch Ard and the humpy monster share the same car park! In Gaelic, I only know one word and that is Loch - lake. Oh wait - I know Hogmanay as well - New Year’s celebration. Though that doesn’t apply much in this situation. Nevermind … This is the first (and only) place for the day that doesn’t have a literal name. It was named after some ship Loch Ard which in turn carried the name of the lake Ard in Scotland.
We can take off our shoes here and bury our toes into the great-oceany sand. The picturesque cliffs opposite us close off the bay and the waves pass through only a small gap. The perfect place for the powerful ocean to break. Foam on one side, cliffs on the other and calmness on the sand. The path to this beach broke up our group, so currently it is just me and mum. But that doesn’t stop us from enjoying it all and taking many pictures.
Helicopters are flying over our heads to show the better-paying tourist the beauties of the Great Ocean Road from above. But according to our logical calculations, we come to the conclusion that even if you spend the money on the quick panoramic air tour, you still have to get down and visit them by land. Nature hasn’t created all this wonder with the idea that we will observe them from above. She has pictured a much more land-based viewpoint. Up there you will never see the real beauty - how the waves break, how the water comes in as layers and a variety of nuances of the blue, grey and white, how the cliffs have been stripped down to all the colours of their layers, how the two elements complete each other - water and land …
Up until now, we have passed 6 stops. At each of them, the activity is: park, look, leave; park, look, leave. I feel as if I’m in an animated film for adventurers. The only thing missing is an animated map that can leave a dotted line behind Bertie, which makes you laugh at the route and the schedule.
The wind follows us everywhere and doesn’t miss the opportunity to carry the ocean spray to us. Little crystals dry upon our faces. Our lips become salty. Our heads - refreshed.
The Twelve Apostles
We reach the most valuable stop on the Great Ocean Road - the Twelve Apostles. Well, the crowds here are already huge. Two bays spread out on both sides of a natural lookout. From the water rise up limestone islands - stoically surviving the currents. And from the name, you are probably expecting the formations to be twelve. Well, they are not.
As far as I understand, even at the “naming”, there weren’t that many, because everywhere they talk about the “original eight”. And after a collapse in 2005, they are now only seven. Well, their arithmetic is very confusing. But even if only seven are still standing up, we can see the remains of the other five. Are we just imagining or is it truly so - no one can tell us. Each of us counts them in our heads a few times to ensure the signs aren’t wrong. All languages can be heard around us - осем, eight, acht, восем, ba, otto, huit …
Their actual count is of no importance. Even if it doesn’t match its name, the views are wonderful. Spacious and in the iconic colour palette of the Great Ocean Road - foamy white, sea-sky blues and limestone-sand beige.
At the visitor centre by the Apostles (there aren’t even toilets at the other stops), we decided to veer off the Road. As beautiful as all the views are, they are getting repetitive. Ocean and limestone formation (or more precisely destructions) again and again. And none of us can insist that the constant stopping and going is a pleasant experience. So we go into the continent towards Otway National Park.
Dad decides to sacrifice himself for another Australian coffee and a comedy show. The experience is no less entertaining than that of two days ago. Here, we are surrounded by eucalyptus rainforests and there are once again structures up in the tall treetops. Nic and I visited a similar one in south Western Australia - this one we can skip. So we let mum and dad walk on their own and we stay at the cafe for more grounded experiences. We will drink our coffee and I will write the diaries.
This is what dad has to say about the walk:
“It is worth it. Even if just to see what a rainforest is, it is worth it. But what was created by man is just as impressive! Promenades of galvanised steel, built up at the height of the eucalyptus crows, lead us on a surreal walk. This isn’t even like a childhood memory when I played with the neighbour kids in the crown of our cherry tree. This is completely different, incomparable!
The route is planned like a small tour with the opportunity for different viewpoints and pictures, but most impressive was the console terrace - sticking out 30 metres, horizontally in the air and only suspended by a few cables somewhere in the middle. You don’t have to be an engineer to feel the swaying, even just by reading about it. There are crying children, mothers with weakened legs and many pairs of hands holding tight to the railings, completely paralysed by fear. “I’m not moving from here!!!” - could be heard in all sorts of languages and the answer, of course, was - “What? We need to get down somehow?!”
The walk isn’t just up in the air. There are also forest paths where we saw another wonder. I have told many stories about plants that we grow simply in pots in Bulgaria, but are gigantic trees at the tropics - ficus, verbenas, philodendrons … At the Treetop Walk, we saw fern. We’ve seen before acres of fern at the cool and humid paths in the mountains. But there, they reach up to our knees. Well here, we saw the sort of fern that diplodocus and other mega-herbivores used to eat. This is a real tree with a thick and tough trunk up until the fifth meter, and from there up - green, dense leaves … another five meters. A monster!”
As we’re already in the area, we will go visit some waterfalls that our app claims are worth the visit. We are already visibly tired by the endless day, and this walk is 40 minutes return, according to the signs. We stick around the parking uncertainly and can’t make a decision. Are these waterfalls that impressive or would we rather get to Melbourne?
But mum, Nic and I decide that if it says 40 minutes, we can do it quicker. Almost with a slow run, we pass the path surrounded by eucalyptus and gigantic ferns. We stop for a few minutes at the lookout and take a picture with the waterfall. We aren’t convinced there are three of them, but there are so pretty and snug within the greenery of the forest, that it seems they were worth the walk. And then we quickly return to the car and dad. With a quick pace, the entire thing takes us 18 minutes.
We are still far away from Melbourne, while the AirBnB check-in is for 8 pm. It is already clear, we can’t get there on time. From the waterfall, the road turns into endless meanders kilometres long down-hill. Neither of us can remember exactly when we climbed this high up to need to get down so much. As if we’re high in a mountain.
We finally rejoin the Great Ocean Road - pale from the turns but there is no time for stops. Though it turns out that the meandering wouldn’t stop there. The actual Road, that wasn’t as windy, narrow and panoramic in the first half, has now changed. Up until the Apostles, it was like the drive to the Lighthouse in Tyulenovo (Bulgaria) - wide and straight, surrounded by fields. Now, it is like the Amalfi coast - tall, vertical cliffs on both sides, only the many houses are missing. And we know both of those roads very well, so this comparison is exact. You can trust us.
Our last stop is Bells Beach. The weather is no longer with us so we are cuddled into one another like penguins. The views are pretty but the clouds are grey, the sun is setting and we are towards the end of our strength. We take photos, leave and warn our hosts we will be late. They are typical Australians so they don’t mind that we’ll ruin their evening plans.
As we are already so late, we start planning dinner early on. A clear and exact plan is made so there are no uncertainties and we can speed up the procedure. Entering Melbourne, mum and I stay behind at the local shop to find frozen pizzas, while dad and Nic go to check us in. Only about an hour and 40 minutes later than promised.
All was good but we face one problem. When we were choosing the AirBnB we didn’t forget to ensure a space for Bertie. He deserves to rest in a comfortable and secure space too. But what we forgot to check, was where exactly the parking space was. So it turns out to be underground parking and Bertie isn’t a big fan of those. The Australians have smartly installed a fire sprinkler system to protect people even in underground areas. But for the textile house on Bertie’s roof, the hanging sprinklers could be fatal.
And now what? Everyone stays in the car to weigh it down as best we can. Meanwhile, Vassya sticks halfway out the window. She will be guiding Nic with precision to every centimetre and will keep an eye on every hanging pipe, sharp corner or anything else that comes millimetres from the tent. Success!
Bertie is parked, all baggage is taken up and we unlock the door to our new home for the next three days. The flat is new, small and has everything that we could ever need in the upcoming days. For Christmas Eve, for Christmas day … for washing. Here, we’ll feel lovely and festive.
I didn’t intend for the Great Ocean Road to have its own text. But that’s how it worked out and maybe it deserved it. It is not random advice that one should pass the road in at least two days, instead of trying to squish it all into one day. But the four of us are unanimous that we weren’t in the mood for more limestone islands. We saw the most important ones and we are glad to move to the urbanistic world of Melbourne. And to see how three Bulgarians and an Englishman would welcome Christmas while being tourists in Australia.
Vassya (Svetla, Nic and Boyan)