Man In A Suitcase

Grampians National Park and environs

After all that time in cities, it made a nice change to get out into the countryside. I finished my visit to Victoria with a three day tour of the land to the west of Melbourne. The tour was a nice compromise between being on my own and not having a clue as to what I was doing; and being part of a group and spending most of my time waiting for everyone to collect themselves. Three tourists and a guide/driver in a small 4WD; what could be better? It meant that we could go places that bigger vehicles and groups couldn't go. Like our time in the Grampians, divided between sprawling vistas and climbing mildly treacherous paths among the sandstone walls of the local Grand Canyon.

Being in a small vehicle meant we could make emergency stops every time Mike, our guide, spotted a bit of wildlife. Like this echidna he noticed rooting around at the side of the road. Echidnas are spiny anteaters with long snouts that are ideal for digging into anthills. You can just make out the snout on this one, just below the three toes of his right front foot. He was a little too busy looking around for food to raise his head for a proper pose.

The kangaroo at right was even less cooperative. She was part of a mob that was hopping madly down the field to our left as we raced along to keep up. And then they decided to fly across the road. I had time for one quick long distance shot through the windscreen before they vanished into the bush.

I prefered our climbing sidetrips to visits to places like MacKenzie Falls. Not that the falls weren't beautiful and impressive and all that. And not that the views from the bottom weren't worth the climb all the way down and all the way back up again. I'd just rather have my exhaustion up front, thank you very much. With every step down I was imagining the pain of the return trip. Kind of took some of the joy out of the excursion, if you know what I mean.

Our first night's lodging was at a nineteenth century homestead called Glenisla that has been in the same family for the last hundred years. The current owner raises a few thousand sheep and a few hundred head of cattle (in the American West he could have had his own range war), in addition to rapeseed/canola and other cash crops. Despite my fears about ending up on an antipodean Green Acres, the brief visit was a smashing success. Comfort, good food, good company. Including the comical horse at right. The moment I approached the fence to take a picture, he trotted over for a visit. Concerned that I get his best side? Or just used to tourists who can be conned out of a between-meal snack? I of course will never tell.

Day two was spent driving through more of the farmland to the west of the Grampians, on our way eventually to a meeting with the southern coast. And making occasional stops at little towns that are marked by a cafe, general store and petrol station, often in the same building, and a few scattered houses. What must it be like to live in a place like this, in a town a fraction of the size of my high school graduation class? Even if it does have views that would cost millions anywhere else.

The Great Ocean Road

We arrived at the coast near the Tower Hill Game Reserve, an extinct volcano that was farmed to death between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and then restored to its natural state starting in the late 1950s. With no one alive who knew what that natural state was, the architects of the game reserve had to rely on an 1855 painting to know what to plant and where to plant it. The reserve is now home to a variety of plant and animal life, starting with the emus we spotted on our way in. I'm fascinated by emus, particularly because they don't share the nasty temperament of their cousins, the cassowaries and ostriches. When I saw the specimen at right I got out of the car and walked right up to her. I knew, or at least thought I knew, that she'd be unfazed by my approach. Only after the fact did my city dweller's inexperience with large creatures with large beaks show up to ask what exactly I thought I was doing. Just as well; if I'd been sensible I'd have missed the picture.

Our guide warned us to be on the lookout for koalas in the trees. It was mid-afternoon, so they were likely to be sleeping. So imagine my surprise when a moment later I spotted the fellow at left, climbing down from one tree, scampering across the road and then climbing up into this one. Highly unlikely, I must say. There was another koala asleep nearby, with a few others high above us as we walked around the reserve. We were driving out when we spotted the critter at right. We woke him up, I'm afraid. Not intentionally, but I still feel guilty about it. And then we sat watching him until he raised his head enough for the picture. But if it's any consolation, I bet he nodded off again as soon as we were out of sight.

The coast around Tower Hill, or at least the impressive parts they show tourists, is all limestone cliffs. The limestone makes for impressive structures like London Bridge to the right. The bridge used to join with the mainland to the left of the arch. Then in 1990 it collapsed, stranding two tourists on the arch until they could be rescued by helicopter. A wonderful and possibly apocryphal story claims that the two were cousins who were carrying on a clandestine but rather torrid affair. Needless to say, the coverage of their rescue blew their cover. That's the sort of story that really needs to be true.

This part of Victoria is known as the Shipwreck Coast, and for very good reason. Back in the nineteenth century, sailing ships bound for Australia would travel well to the south to take advantage of the winds. They would head north right around this longitude. But, celestial navigation being what it was, they could easily be a hundred miles from where they thought they were. Such was the case of the Loch Ard, which in 1879 arrived at the reef you see here in the wee hours of the morning. Despite the captain's best efforts to slow or turn her, she plowed into the reef. Of the fifty-four passengers and crew, only two eighteen year olds survived: apprentice seaman Tom Pierce and passenger Eva Carmichael. Despite the romance of their adventure and their survival, they did not end up together; Eva decided she'd had enough of Australia and returned, now an orphan, to Ireland. It's a great story, although it's even better when you're standing on the very spot that saw the Loch Ard's fate.

A little further down the coast we find the celebrated Twelve Apostles. Not that they look anything like the apostles, or so I assume, photographic evidence being so limited. I'm not even sure there are twelve of them, although there may have been. What's most interesting about the Apostles isn't the what; it's the how. Like the rest of the Shipwreck Coast, the limestone of the Apostles was formed from the skeletons of sea life. After the sea level dropped and exposed the limestone, erosion did its thing. The softer parts of the limestone (presumably from creatures with poor nutritional habits) fell away, leaving caves. The caves grew to become arches, which eventually collapsed to leave free-standing columns that rise as much as 150 feet above the surface. Which raises the question: why apostles? Even if there were twelve of them once upon a time.

Eventually the coast changes, the stark and forbidding limestone cliffs replaced by more gentle, more wooded slopes. The Shipwreck Coast gives way to the Surf Coast, home to many fine surfing and swimming beaches. The road began to get busier and the towns larger, although even the biggest seemed small and quaint to someone who's traversed the California coast. Just the same, I'm sure the locals bemoan the crowds and the traffic and the parking problems and look back fondly on the good old days before success ruined paradise.

The Great Ocean Road isn't just ocean. There's even some honest-to-God rainforest along the way, nestled in valleys where recurrent forest fires couldn't reach. A wander through a rainforest is a step back into an ancient world, with primitive ferns that would have known dinosaurs competing with more recent and more technologically advanced flora.

Our last stop before leaving the coast was at the golf course at Anglesea. Our guide had to point out the kind of hazard golfers don't encounter on American courses. It turns out the course faces onto a nature reserve. The owners of the golf course get free lawn trimming services by the kangaroo population, the kangaroos get all that tasty grass to eat and the tourists get to gawk at the funny creatures over the fence, not all of which are wearing plaid pants.

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 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California