South Australia’s Great Ocean Road

Australia is extraordinary, a continent so distant from Toronto, about 30 hours travel with two plane rides. It has mesmerizing geological landscapes, hundreds of millions of years old, plus unique indigenous forest, garden and animal species, like Koalas and Kangaroos, found nowhere else on earth. The friendliness of the people in Australia is as welcoming as its incessant sunny days and stunning, boundless white sand beaches.

Arriving in Australia, on the other side of the earth, you gain over half a day in time and being in the Southern Hemisphere, the daytime sun overhead is coming at you from the north, not the south. Size wise, its continent landmass is only slightly smaller than Canada so it is most effective to take flights in between regions of interest. Although the language and colonial heritage is familiar to Canadians, the road regulations oblige driving on the left side of the road, so maneuvering traffic lights and intersections requires unusual focus.

Melbourne is located on the extreme south east coast. It is a contemporary city located on the Yarra River, which grew from a gold rush surge in the 1850’s and has incorporated its grand Victorian buildings into the fabric of today’s 80 plus story towers, architecture. Within its numerous expansive public parks and gardens, Melbourne celebrates its colonial past with statues and its flamboyant present with botanic brilliance. It is an urban city with an attractive welcoming panache and a worldly flair as diverse as anywhere. It was our springboard to visit nearby Phillip Island, one of the best known places to witness the Little Penguins on their daily beach parade near the shores of Woolamai Beach.

Our excursion to see the blue and white Little Penguins, 30 – 35 cm in height, as they leave the sea each night, in rafts of 100 or more individuals, was a paramount excitement of our trip. As we waited in anticipation, sitting up on land, just beyond the main sands of the beach, the Penguins delayed exposure until the cover of dusk to swim up and onto the beach, then waddled out as a group to within 10 meters of where we sat on a viewing platform. They preened themselves, nosing their little bodies with their beaks for about 15 minutes, then again as a group they departed, heading up onto the surrounding hillsides and into their individual burrows. Photography was not allowed here, protecting the Penguin’s sensitive eyes and environment from human infringement. We marveled at witnessing their coordinated moves and adorable squeaking sounds.

The Great Ocean Road, stretching west from Melbourne, is visually spectacular as it goes along the south coast, winding in and out of bays and headlands. The contrast between sea, sky and the diagonally slanted land cascading into the turquoise sea is a glorious sight, especially if it is a clear blue sky day like we had.

On our way to Apollo Bay, there were many impressive ocean views, one being at the Anglesea Lighthouse. Our lunch spot was an opportunity to walk the beach and soak our toes in the cold Southern Ocean sea water. At Kennett River there were wild Koalas feeding in the trees & King Parrots (vivid green, red and blue) fluttering in the trees and taking birdseed from our hands. From Apollo Bay, we drove five km up a steep and winding, one lane, dirt road to a retreat tucked away up at the top of the mountain ridge. There we were surrounded by rolling green hills, clumps of mature eucalyptus trees, sprawling gardens, wild kangaroos and long wide views overlooking the ocean in all directions.

I found the eucalyptus trees of Australia, of which there are dozens of types, all to be fascinating. They have beautiful tall arching trunks, with imaginatively spaced branches. No two trees are alike, even within the same species; all have different shape and character. Some have smooth pale bark, others dark red or brown, a few have bumps and knobs, whilst others, have bark that appears as if peeling off in vertical strips. Each eucalypt forest is an artistic banquet of colors, shapes and textures. Those that love the eucalyptus trees the most are Koalas, who literally feast on them. Sleeping almost 20 hours each day when they are awake the Koalas sit as lumps in a notch of young sturdy branches and slowly they reach out for eye catching leaves, leisurely munching on the oily vegetation.

There are ‘land based’ islands of unique forest in Australia, scientists have discovered, that are remnant of an ancient prehistoric supercontinent known as Gondwana which is comprised of much tropical rainforest. Gondwana was in a time that never experienced subzero temperatures and evolvements later to the Australia we now know, that the glacial age never reached. Hence, today there are still pockets, although few and remote, where prehistoric botanical species, like giant ferns the size of trees, survive. The Fern Trees, reaching seven meters in height, are remnants of the Gondwana Rainforests of over a million years ago. We hiked in one such tract of forest, the Maits Rest Walk, along the Great Ocean Drive, on our way to Apollo Bay and Cape Otway. Wandering in this distinctively unique swathe of rainforest, in the filtered light of gigantic hanging fern fronds, we were left with an eerie impression, like being in a place that time forgot.

Nothing prepares you for the scale of the massive sea stacks at the famous Twelve Apostles seascape, where 45 metre high sandstone sea stacks protrude out of the flat beach, beside miles of winding, steep sided cliffs. It is a clear-cut shoreline that has been allowed to stay wild, without development. Some of the stacks have a distinctive shape, like the long angled Razor Back, or a history, like the Loch Ard Gorge, which collapsed into two stacks in 2009. Then there is the concealed Inner Cove, where two survivors of a shipwreck in 1878 landed on its secluded beach. Wherever you look, the long cresting waves keep rising and falling, growing out of the freezing Southern Ocean that continuously pummels this shoreline with a relentless and incessant wearing away, crumbling power. No matter the view, these remarkable sentinels are esthetically dramatic and pose a mesmerizing visual memory of this extraordinary headland.

For the young and firm, if you can get there and dare to sustain the intensity, this shore is also a surfers haven.

Australia, the land of odd creatures and diverse geological landforms. Astounded and impressed, I will happily return for its bountiful sun and matchless diversity.

By wilderness writer & photographer Cynthia Percival.

Author: Living Spaces

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