Whereas getting out of Canberra for Melbourne couldn’t happen fast enough, I was almost reticent to leave the latter for this four day roadie. It was probably the leg of the trip with the most unknowns, aside from what would happen with our Asian leg, beginning about 10 days after this. I needn’t have worried. This was absolutely stellar (the very final bit aside), and something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
Note: As with previous roadtrips to the Blue Mountains, Bundaberg/Noosa, and around Canberra, we rented from Thrifty. I haven’t mentioned them thus far, but they are worth a small note. We found them professional and decent to deal with throughout. All cars reserved prior to the trip were ready and we had no issues with them at all, with no hidden fees suddenly showing up on our final statements.
Absolutely teeming with wildlife, Phillip Island is about 140km to the south of Melbourne and it’s not a bad drive at all, though you do get stuck in pretty heavy traffic close to Melbourne. You also have to go south past Port Phillip Bay, then slightly east, around Western Port Bay and French Island to get there. This wouldn’t be bad if you were just returning to Melbourne, but as our next day took us to Lorne to begin three nights on the Great Ocean Road and back through the Grampians, it meant our next day of driving would be long. It probably took about two hours from Melbourne to Phillip Island.
We rented a small house in Cowes (the town centre on Phillip Island) for the night and decided to try and get there by about noon so we could explore a bit, see some sights, and more importantly, ensure we saw the Penguin Parade in the evening. Phillip Island is small and you could easily do many circuits of it in a day. Our main daytime activity, aside from eating, was to go for a nice walk at the Nobbies, a spectular boardwalk over amazing scenery at the southwest tip of the island. We also managed to hit the Koala Reserve and opted to avoid the Phillip Island Wildlife Park, which research (and a visual from the road) told us was nothing more than a roadside zoo. Churchill Island was also initially a place of interest, but was essentially a farmed animal museum when we got there.
We were over three weeks into our trip so far and had zero Koala sightings (in part a byproduct of the awful brush fires). As such, to ensure we didn’t come home empty-handed, we paid a visit to the Phillip Island Koala Reserve as we drove the area. I’m really glad we did because it’s a beautiful little facility focused on improving their numbers, and we got some great shots of Koalas in their natural environs, plus a Kookaburra and parrot or two. And, we never saw another Koala for our remaining time in Oz.
After checking into our accommodations, having a bit of lunch and visiting the little bears on our island sightseeing drive, we hit the southwestern most point of Phillip Island to see The Nobbies. Don’t ask me where the name comes from, but the scenery is mind-blowing and we had a few penguin and Wallaby sightings. I’m glad I captured a penguin pic or two here, because photos were not allowed during the penguin parade later in the evening. It was hard choosing just a few photos from the Nobbies.
Next to touching baby turtles at Mon Repos, this experience was a real highlight of the trip. Every night, the smallest penguins in the world make their way from the ocean back to their nests in the hills around Summerlands and The Nobbies. I also managed to capture one of my favourite pics (of a Wallaby) here before we had to put our cameras away.
You’ll have to enjoy the penguin pic in the last set though, as no photos were allowed once it was dusk, or we were anywhere near the penguins.
Great Ocean Road
We got a fairly early start the next day to head over toward Great Ocean Road (GOR), as the trip to our first stop at Lorne figured to be a good five or more hour drive, taking the bulk of our second day of this road trip. Great Ocean Road is about 250km of the most beautiful, rugged ocean scenery you’re ever likely to see, though it drives more like 400-500km.
Researching the drive, most people suggested a full three nights, but as we also wanted to see the Grampians on the way back to Melbourne, we opted to do GOR over two nights, with a third night in Halls Gap in Grampians National Park. It may have been a bit quick, but taking one extra day would have primarily been to allow for more hikes because there is simply so much scenery, you probably can’t do it justice in much under five nights. If I ever did it again, I’d take far more time for sure.
After getting back to Melbourne from Phillip Island and through the traffic, the trip south to Lorne was probably three hours of driving. The main points of interest are Geelong (where we didn’t stop) and Torquay, a really cool little windswept surfing village (where we did stop for lunch). Geelong isn’t a big city but it’s still large enough that traffic slows a bit getting past it. As well, the scenery and photo stops don’t really start until past Torquay, so we wanted to ensure we had time for photos closer to our destination.
Melbourne to Lorne
To get from Phillip Island to Lorne means going back through Melbourne then south again on the other side of the bay. Getting past Geelong takes some time even though it’s only about 60km. It’s absolutely beautiful once you hit Torquay so it really isn’t a chore, but the kilometres do pass rather slowly in this section. While in Lorne we took a little drive north into the hills and checked out Erskine Falls.
These photos are from the last third of the drive from Melbourne to Lorne, which includes Torquay, Angelsea and Airey’s Inlet. Here things are primarily sandy beach, cliffs and treed hills. Before Torquay, it’s mostly just inland freeway.
Lorne & Area
Lorne is wonderfully picturesque. Set upon a beautiful beach with steep forrested hills up behind the main drag, it would be a fantastic place to just unplug, and unwind with some sun, hiking and running. We stayed in a little place up the hill called Chatby Lane, that was like a small apartment with a partial view. As we were getting settled, a cockatiel visited us on our veranda. Clearly used to people (probably for snacks), we were able to get right up to him for photos. Oh, and we saw LOTS of cockatiels and they were VERY noisy.
As it happens, we were starting to get a little concerned about the effect of the blossoming coronavirus on our Asian travels by this time, but I’ll have more on that at the end of this post.
Lorne to Warrnambool
At roughly 170km, this leg probably ends up being a good three and a half hours to drive plus easily that much more time to stop, given the traffic and scenery. There’s a ton to see so half the fun is actually doing the drive. About a third of the way you hit Cape Otway, which was really the first place I’d like to have spent more time. In fact we simply drove past, while going in and exploring would have been better. Cape Otway also marks roughly the halfway point on GOR.
Between Cape Otway and Warrnambool, we hit the Twelve Apostles, Loch Ard Gorge, London Bridge and Bay of Islands. I’ll admit, with the distance we were covering to get to Warrnambool, it was already late afternoon by the time we got to the last couple, and we couldn’t really give them the time they deserved. Luckily, for the final 50km after Bay of Islands, the road goes inland a bit and the scenery drops off substantially.
Great Otway National Park
In truth, Great Otway encompasses a lot of the southeastern area on GOR, from Angelsea southwest to Cape Otway, covering over 1000 square kilometers. Perhaps at least one more night in Lorne or Cape Otway would have been nice, to get a day of hiking on some of the stellar trails. This photo was taken at Apollo Bay beach, just a little before Cape Otway on GOR.
Wildlife aside, if I had to pick one natural feature of Australia above all others, it would probably be this. Magnificent cliffs, vistas and surf, coupled with spectacular island rock formations, the Twelve Apostles literally takes your breath away. I could have spent a whole day mesmerized by their beauty.
The following spots are really like extensions of the twelve apostles, as they are similar in formation and and just a bit smaller in size. While just as beautiful, you almost become numb to how amazing all of this really is.
Loch Ard Gorge
I really only have one photo of the waterfront. The town of Port Campbell is a very small berg, between Loch Ard Gorge and the remaining sights on GOR, before heading inland a bit to Warrnambool. We were getting hungry by this time, so the only reason we actually went through town was to get snacks.
Bay of Martyrs
Warrnambool is actually a little past the end of GOR, but the best place to crash for the night and is a good place to start the drive to the Grampians. It’s a good sized smaller city, but not really a place to spend much time visiting. It reminded me a lot of the cities we have on highways in Canada. A quaint town centre, with a lot of outlying strip malls and driving. We checked into our accommodations, wandered around the town centre, ate and did a little driving in the evening. There really wasn’t much there compelling me to take pictures, but we had a nice quiet self-contained bungalow. We were running out of mobile data by this time so we did buy new Telstra SIM cards the next day before we left for the mountains.
Grampians National Park is a beautiful, green, mountainous park north of Warrnambool, about 250km northeast of Melbourne, roughly 1/3 of the way between it and Adelaide further to the northwest. One night was definitely not enough there, but at least we were able to experience a little of it.
Warnambool to Halls Gap
Halls Gap in Grampians National Park is probably about two hours directly north of Warnambool. The road isn’t big but there’s almost no traffic and the driving is pretty flat for the most part. It’s a real departure from GOR, travelling through drier farmland and then ascending a little into the mountains at a solid clip. Ironically, after so much driving over the past three days, I found some of the best craft beer I’ve ever had at Paper Scissors Rock Beer, and the area is utterly full of kangaroos. Our accommodation was pretty spartan at the Halls Gap Motel, with some really slow internet.
A very short hike en route
We happened across the Major Mitchell Plateau Trail driving into the Grampians and got out of the car for what ended up being a very short hike. In addition to not being dressed to go too far, we got buzzed by a lot of stinging bugs, so we decided to descend before we got to the views.
In town & Halls Gap Hotel
While the hotel may have been spartan, with glacial internet speed, right out back we were treated to some kangaroo close-ups, with a big mob (this is what a group is called) of roos at a local playing field. Oddly, we also found some of the best beer in all of Australia at their local craft tasting room.
Above Halls Gap there are a number of roads and lookouts with tons of great hiking and killer vistas. We didn’t quite make it to the Pinnacle due to time, but before departing back for Melbourne the next day inland through Ballarat, we took in Boroka Lookout and hiked around the beautiful rock formations in the Wonderland area. Honestly, another night in Halls Gap would have been ideal, as we badly wanted to do more hiking.
Checking out the hills above Halls Gap
The rock formations in the hills above town were beautiful, and there are a ton of trails and views we didn’t get to. We did a little poking around the afternoon we arrived, and then went for a slightly longer hike the next morning before we took off back to Melbs. The first couple photos are from Boroka Lookout, while the rest were in the Wonderland area just shy of the Pinnacle.
In closing the GOR and Grampians leg, I’d say five or six nights to do the whole thing would have been far better. I’d still probably do Melbourne to Lorne on day one, stay two nights there so I could do some hiking in Great Otway and spend a little time in the cape lighthouse area. I’d also probably add a night somewhere between Otway and Warrnambool, possibly even Port Campbell, so I could spend more time with the scenery in the area. Finally, I’d add a night in Halls Gap, to spend more time in the trails just northwest of town.
Where things began to go sideways
I’d be remiss if I didn’t add a little subplot at this point. After all, for nearly four weeks things had gone just about perfectly. Australia was supposed to be the first of at least three big trips in 2020. As we travelled through Oz we’d been keeping an eye on COVID-19 developments, but nothing had blown up by the time we started this leg. We were supposed to stay in Melbourne the next night, then fly to Singapore on March 5th to begin about 3.5 weeks of backpacking through Malaysia and Thailand, before flying home from Bangkok through Seoul in early April.
Unfortunately, South Korea was starting to explode with coronavirus cases and we became very concerned about flying home through there and what might happen en route. As well, some other cities like Bangkok and Tokyo were starting to show cases. Not wanting to be in the middle of southeast Asia and run into travelling problems, once we got to Halls Gap, we decided we’d see if we could change our Singapore flight to Perth for a week and then plan a new route home.
You really haven’t lived until you’ve tried to reach Qantas customer service from the mountains with poor cell reception to change flights as a viral pandemic is breaking out. Due to the volume of people doing the same thing I was, I got nowhere on my initial phone calls with waiting times of over two hours. However, after pinging them on Twitter I was able to DM them the changes we wanted and have a rep call me back with our new flight details. It cost us a few hundred, but we were indeed going to Perth and avoiding Seoul. Then I booked a room at the Ibis Styles East Perth and scrambled to see if I could do anything to cancel our four nights in Singapore (booked online at non-refundable prices). By some miracle I actually reached the front desk for the hotel and when I told them we could no longer come due to coronavirus, they said they were automatically refunding all reservations (even non-refundable ones). I should note that our Singapore hotel was also an Ibis. Between the two we stayed in, the Mercure in Canberra, and this experience I have nothing but good things to say about Accor hotels.
This meant, of course, that we also needed to cancel our flights from Bangkok to Seoul and the hotel nights we had booked in Bangkok. Ultimately, I wouldn’t tackle that until we were in Perth. There’s more to this story. Far more. However, I’ll save that for my last two posts, as travel would get downright gnarly (unbeknownst to us at the time). At this point, all we knew was we now had a week in Perth and a couple of weeks of Asia backpacking time that needed to be filled with something new.
A last night in Melbourne
And finally, after a pretty uneventful – and much faster – drive back to Melbourne inland, we had a final night booked at a small Airbnb condo in Melbourne’s Docklands neighbourhood. Very close to major airport transit at Southern Cross Station, with all kinds of food in walking distance, it should have been a relaxing night before our unexpected Perth trip. However, we were greeted by a big stain on the carpet inside the door, the sofa was literally falling apart, the place was dirty, lacked any spare towels and didn’t even have a top sheet on the bed. We found stains on the bedding and I think there was even a hair or two for good measure. I requested a refund, but only got about 1/3 back. Airbnb was beginning to hemorage due to COVID cancellations and I don’t think I’ve ever had a full resolution to my complaint.
We did manage to walk around the Docklands for one final evening, as we hadn’t during our week there prior. Needless to say, we slept fully clothed on the bed and checked out as soon as we were able to the next morning to fly to Perth.