Victoria in the springtime… To use the Australian vernacular “it’s bladdy beautiful!” All the plants were flowering and the birds were even more magnificent than usual, positively exploding in mating colours and filling the air with their song. The weather in these parts can be somewhat topsy-turvy; when the wind blows from the north it comes from the hot dry centre of Oz bringing temperatures of 40°C+. But if the wind shifts to the south then Antarctic howlers can drop this to a few degrees within hours and it all makes for some ‘interesting’ weather. Having finally arrived in Melbourne our first action was to promptly leave Australia…
On entry to Oz, we were granted a free 12-month visa, conditional that we leave and return every three months, so we flew to Auckland for a long weekend as our first three-month stint was almost over. The bikes were safe and sound in John’s garage having been cleaned, serviced and had new rear tyres fitted. With the visa reset for another three months and after over two years on the road, it was great to spend some time with family and we were positively spoiled at each of the three stops we made with my cousins John, Ann and Denise, offering us three very different insights into life in and around Melbourne. John and Diane first with their grand place on Brighton seafront; a chance to catch up on family histories over some fine wine and food and take in the sea air from walks along the bay. Then on to Ann and Richard in their splendid town house and a lively traipse around the city itself to explore markets and riverwalks with our engaging hosts. And last but not least, Denise and Trevor and their idyllic location out on the Mornington Peninsular at Mount Martha where we toured the wineries, took in the gorgeous beach there and drove up to see Arthur’s Seat and the breathtaking views over Port Phillip Bay.
Our stay with Denise coincided happily with the Melbourne Cup, Australia’s most prestigious annual thoroughbred horse race. The two-mile handicap, billed as “the race that stops a nation”, is one of the richest turf races on the planet with total prize money for the 2017 race of $6.2 million AUD plus trophies valued at a further $175,000. The winner of the first race way back in 1861 received a gold watch; today the winning horse will net a cool $3.6 million. We can vouch that the nation does indeed stop and embroils in a 24-hour party, an excuse to sink a few ‘stubbies’ and have a flutter on the gee-gees. The newspapers reported that in the previous year Australians bet $657 million over the course of the four-day Melbourne Cup event with about $350 million of that placed on Cup day itself. Australians drink the equivalent of 25 million swimming pools of alcohol between breakfast and dinner on Cup day, which is a public holiday across Melbourne and most of Victoria. The event itself is attended by crowds in excess of 100,000 people and just about everyone else will stop whatever they are doing to watch or listen to the great race.
The city turns into a ghost town as everyone heads to the nearest television to watch the race. Every taproom and tavern, lounge and saloon was kitted out to take bets as folk quaffed the afternoon away to a soundtrack of race commentary, news and latest form from the multiple TV sets stacked around the bar. Denise and Trevor took us to a local establishment where we settled in for the day’s entertainment. There was a tremendous buzz to the afternoon as we contributed about a washbasin full of alcohol to the fore-mentioned national ‘swimming-pool’ statistic. I’d like to say now that we stacked a hundred on the outside winner and formally announce my intention to retire and stay on the road forever on the proceeds of this staggeringly lucky bet. However, true to form, we somehow managed to pick a fine selection of mule-eared also-rans from this field of fine stallions, our gambling contribution to the day merely further enriching the bookmakers. Still, fine company… a wee drink or two… a bit of starters orders and then a wallop down the track… it all made for a truly memorable day.
An easy ride from Melbourne took us to Foster, an old mining town and access to some fine hiking at Wilsons Promontory. We spent a pleasant afternoon hiking up Mount Oberon for some wonderful views of the coastline in these parts and then down for a paddle at the aptly named Squeaky Beach, so called because the fine white silica sand chirps and squeaks as you walk across it. On our way back to Foster we had our first Echidna encounter. The Echidna could be loosely described as an Aussie hedgehog and is one of only four remaining species of ‘monotremes’ in the world (mammals that lay eggs). We were riding along the road when we spotted this fuzzy football object crossing our path ahead. We dismounted and caught up with the cute little fellow on the grass verge just as he curled up into a ball, dug into the ground with his feet, flexing his thick spines for protection. Echidnas are remarkable in that they have no nipples (their young, known as ‘Puggles’, are reared in a pouch and suckle milk from the pores of a pair of milk patches that secrete milk onto specialized hair follicles). Males have a four-headed penis of which only two heads are used during mating, releasing semen into the female’s double-branched reproductive tract with head sets alternating each time the Echidna mates. However before he gets that far the male has to compete with other males to win his mate and females are often seen with a train of up to ten eager males all trying to hit ‘home base’.
Our travels took us next along one of the worlds great motorcycling rides; the Great Ocean Road that runs west for around 150-miles along the coast from just outside Melbourne. Similar to some of the classic American routes like ‘The Going to the Sun Highway’ and the ‘Blue-Ridge Parkway’ it was built as a public works / job creation scheme in the days after the First World War to open the area to tourism and further settlement. On completion it was dedicated to the fallen from WW1 and as such it is the world’s largest war memorial. In the early days it was a single-track gravel road and had tolls levied on it but these were lifted once the original costs had been recouped and today it is a splendid modern road that winds along some fine breathtaking ocean terrain.
We explored the road from a couple of delightful camping stops at Anglesea and Apollo Bay and spent our days undertaking a few invigorating cliff-top walks and visiting the magnificent Twelve Apostles rock formations. At the western end we made another halt at the beautiful little town of Port Fairy, formerly known as Belfast. A lovely volunteer lady at the local Tourist Information office gave us a potted history of the town. The port was originally discovered when some whalers sailed up the Moyne River in search of fresh water. They named the area after their cutter ‘The Fairy’ and the nearby ocean would be a rich hunting ground for whales. A whaling station was established in 1835 but the whalers were so successful that within only a decade, the supply of whales was exhausted and the whaling station closed. By now some of the seamen began to settle the land, realising the potential of its rich and fertile soil. In 1843, James Atkinson, a Sydney solicitor, obtained land in the town by ‘Special Survey’ from the Crown in 1843. He drained the swamps, subdivided and leased the land, and built a harbour on the Moyne River. He named the resulting town “Belfast” after his hometown in Northern Ireland. Within a few years Belfast was one of the largest ports in Australia. Atkinson seems to have been an absentee landlord but another gentleman, one William Rutledge, also purchased a swathe of land under the Survey system and, at his own cost, arranged for several families to come from Ireland to work the new holding. The area attracted settlers from Ireland, both North and South, Protestant and Catholic and also a few Scots, who seemed happy to live side by side in this new life on the other side of the world. Their efforts evolved into a great potato and onion industry that would soon feed most of the city folk elsewhere in Australia. In 1887 the town’s name reverted back to Port Fairy but wandering around its quaint little streets lined with whalers cottages, old hotels and shopfronts there are plenty of reminders of its past. It felt pleasantly strange to saunter small town Oz and be confronted with shop names like ‘the Belfast Emporium’, “Belfast Ice and Cold Storage’ or the ‘Crepe Man of Belfast.’ We passed the ‘Caledonian Hotel’ (oldest licensed hotel in Victoria – 1844) and sauntered by ‘Dublin House’. Down at the small harbour there was even a boat named the ‘Jasus’, which gave us a chuckle.
A cool morning ride out took us to nearby Tower Hill, a small wildlife reserve and a place of stunning beauty. Set in the lake filled caldera of an ancient volcano, the reserve is a great place to see wild Koala and Emu. We found the Koalas almost immediately on setting off for one of the short hiking trails round the park. There they were, slouched up in the trees like a bunch of little old drunks sleeping off a bad one. Much more lively were the Emus, engaged in a spot of picnic robbery, ready to snatch a morsel or two from rug or table. Signs at the picnic area advised that the best way to drive off a persistent raider is to stand tall with your arms stretched high above your head and hands formed to make a beak. Emus are incredibly dumb and think you look like a taller Emu so will back off. We can attest that this does in fact work although at times you needed to have eyes in the back of your head. We watched one stalk an unwary lady at another table, creeping up silently behind and then precision snatching a sandwich out of her hand from over her shoulder, scaring the bejasus out of her in the process.
We rode north and east through rolling potato fields, legacy of the original settlers of Port Fairy, on superb empty roads that led us through the Grampian Mountains to the delightful city of Bendigo where we had been invited to stay with Steve and Serah Campbell, some friends from HU Indonesia. We spent a relaxing day out with Steve visiting the surrounding area and mooching Maldon, another old mining town whose population once grew to over 18,000 miners keen to exploit the Victorian gold rush back in the 1850’s. The mines were already exhausted by the turn of the century and nowadays Maldon is something of a sleepy little backwater of a thousand souls but it oozes with atmosphere and we spent an hour or two clumping along the boardwalks and soaking it all in with yet another great Australian host. Our time with Steve and Serah was all too short as we had a boat to catch that would take us to our next destination; Tasmania.
The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Victoria