A spot of sea air: The Great Ocean Road


I’ll have to admit, the first day was a bit gloomy. 30.06.07 559km

I was walking back from the pub in Melbourne when a full moon caught my eye above me, filtered through fast moving cirrus clouds. The ground rocked under my feet and I was on a yacht at sea, reading the weather and thinking of what conditions were to come; the ground was solid, and I was snug in my bivvy bag on a mountain top; the important thing was that in my mind I wasn’t in the city, I was outdoors and attuned to the world around me.

There’s more to life than finding the best café or that funky new bar, I thought, but as I pedalled gloomily against a headwind on the M1 out of Melbourne, my mind couldn’t reconcile living somewhere beautiful and yet staying in touch, plugged in to the world. The whine of fast cars passing me filled my ears like a bad case of tinnitus and matched the howl of thoughts tumbling in my mind. Go back! Go back! Go back to friends, a large gay community, creative people, security! Go on! Go on! Head towards adventure, discover this world of yours!

The M1, surprisingly, is the best option if you’re heading to Geelong from Melbourne unless you want to zigzag all over the place on back roads. There’s a good hard shoulder though in a few places you end up lugging your bike through mud at roadworks, or dodgily close to cars on a narrower section of overpass.

IMG_0379.JPGYou end up in central Geelong, which appears to be scrubber central. The supermarket was a scary place to be, with multiple mothers screaming at their kids. ‘Dylan! Get off the F***n’ floor! I’m tellin’ ya!’ Perhaps it was just my Mr Gloomy mood, perhaps the grey weather, my tiredness or the horribly cheery music from the waterfront roundabout (nothing worse than too-cheery music when you’re in a glum mood) but I really didn’t like the place. There are neat painted figures about the place, though.

The house of a friend’s mother lifted me up with grandkids everywhere, a hot shower, Harry Potter on the TV and the accumulated clutter of a home.

The Great Ocean Road 651-877km

The appetite of a cyclist is astonishing. Here in my comfy tent, snug with the patter of rain above and a toasty thermarest below, I’ve just eaten: a third of a packet of pasta with an entire kabana, a good handful of bacon bits, a handful of sunflower seeds, a handful of snowpeas, with a creamy sauce, all beefed up with a spare packet of noodles and preceded by good cup of tea. Oh, and I had two chocolate croissants at half price, too.

Yesterday’s gloom has thankfully lifted – the low point was hauling Sputnik through gooey mud to avoid roadworks which had gobbled up the hard shoulder. Right then, the thought of cycling solo an insane distance seemed ludicrous and the city life with a nice job and the prospect of a boyfriend the far preferable option.

Take the road south from Geelong towards Torquay, and you leave the bland suburban sprawl behind. It’s not long before you leave the last shopping centre, fundamentalist church and other suburban blights. Torquay replaces this with Surfworld, a shopping centre with rival spires of big brands Billabong versus Quiksilver. They take their surfing seriously in Australia, and Torquay and its Bells Beach is one of the spiritual (and commercial) centres of Australian surfing.

IMG_0385.JPGBeyond Torquay, the Great Ocean Road begins, leading off to the southwest around rocky headlands, the sea crashing on to small seaweed-strewn beaches and a low weatherbeaten scrubland beside the tarmac. If you’re from New Zealand, it looks just like the roads found all over the east coast of the South Island, but don’t tell Australians that, they’re very proud of their ‘Greatest’ Ocean Road…

Between Torquay and Lorne houses push their way on to the coast; once you’re past the developments (and cheap chocolate croissants) you’ve left the leisurely-drive-from-Geelong-and-Melbourne distance – and the headlands become higher, wilder, the road windier, and the number of plaques commemorating those involved in the effort of roadbuilding increases.

Wriggling under a locked gate found me the best campsite so far, away from the road and surrounded at last by green trees and high soft grass.
IMG_0380.JPGTwo 90 kilometre days in a row made me tired…so instead of riding I found a million stops for water, going to the loo, looking at the view, photos, pedal issues…it’s amazing what you can find as an excuse for a 5 miniute break form the grind. You get the feeling the road is turning the corner of the bottom of Australia here. Out at sea, tankers approach the Port Phillip Bay heads. Closer, if you’re lucky, you can see whales breaching and spouting.

At Apollo Bay a young girl was bossing her friends around before striding up to me to give a good long stare. Her friend stood half a metre behind. Around me lay Sputnik and an explosion of opened pannier bags.

‘Do you ride your bike and camp?’

It was only lunch … satisfied, off she ran with her disciple, to climb a gum tree and begin singing the national anthem, ‘Advance Australia Fair’.

IMG_0388.JPG IMG_0395.JPGThere are great big stands of yellow-barked gums all around where I’m camped, and the cosiest little shelly beach 15 minutes down the hill. Up the road a bit are the only remaining stands of Myrtle beech on the Australian mainland (Nothofagus spp., common in more southerly Tasmanian rainforests).

Three guys holding surfboards left their Holden ute in the carpark and headed for the beach. I set up my tent and followed, finding them 10 minutes down the track in silent contemplation of a small swell from the south. The oldest, the father, said ‘We’ll try it, we always do’, before continuing down the sand track. At the rear with fashionably long bleached hair the youngest guy looked a bit grim. It was raining.
The amble in the forest did me good. Somewhere in the wet, dripping green leaves, wet moss and sand of the beach, my mind left behind the last of the incessant babble of thoughts since leaving Melbourne. That night, the wind began to roar in the canopy, a wild night.

IMG_0409.JPG The man at the café assured me the river water from his tap would probably kill me, and his friend behind him, lugging an enormous artists’ canvas, proposed that cycling was a far worse, slower death than intestinal amoebiasis. They probably wanted me, quite reasonably, to buy a bottle of water.

Further up the hill I was just returning to the saddle when a woman in rainbow-coloured thermals dashed down from the Castle Cove lookout. With my lens cap in hand, she asked ‘Are you Nick?'

She’d been a guest on a guiding trip I’d led several years ago – her kids had had a great day scooting along the flat slimy rockbed of the Mersey River one sunny, lovely day. You always remember the kids; there aren’t many on the trips I led, and you always remember when they manage not to split their heads open on slimy rocks.

I stood there chatting, hoping she wouldn’t notice I hadn’t really washed in a week.

A beautiful day. No knee worries at all. Thank heavens for glucosamine and good advice from friends. Fluorescent green paddocks (but no superphosphate, said the café owner), and a cold early morning splash in the sea.
IMG_0432.JPG IMG_0419.JPGI felt less like an alien in raincoat and overtrousers among the fashionably dressed tourists when the the squall hit. The howling wind smashed the rain into the side of my hood, and people crouched beside low walls for shelter. The view of the Twelve Apostles was magnificent, just like the postcards and endless tourism photos you see: eleven (the twelfth apostle collapsed a couple of years ago) rock stacks just apart from the mainland, of yellowish, layered stone sandstone. A brief gap in the clouds let sunshine wash over the nearest outcrops, and I got the photograph I wanted. Perched on the end of a headland, the viewing platform makes you feel like you’re in an aeroplane skimming the waves out at sea, though I was glad I wasn’t really in a plane today, because the waves were crashing in hard.

You could easily imagine a ship such as the Loch Ard in 1878 desperately trying to claw its way to windward, trying to escape this impressive but awful lee shore. A day from the safety of the Melbourne docks, the ship’s passengers and crew were celebrating the end of a long voyage from England. It was foggy that morning of landfall however, and once land was sighted the ship was far too close in to shore.

At the time, making landfall in southern Australia through Bass Strait from England was a tricky business – there was Tasmania and its islands to the south, and the lee shore of southern Victoria to the north. Without the accuracy of today’s GPS, a landfall in foggy conditions was a captain’s nightmare.

Failing to make headway against the wind, the crew let go the anchors to prevent the ship being blown on to the rocks. The anchors dragged, and the Loch Ard sank quickly after being holed by pounding surf off Muttonbird Island. Only two people on the ship survived.

IMG_0434.JPGTom Pierce, at 18 years old a cabin boy, was washed into what is now known as Loch Ard gorge, a long narrow breach in the cliffs ending in a beach. Eva Carmichael, 19 year old daughter of an Irish, was by sheer luck washed in as well, clinging to a spar. Like a storybook hero, Tom dove back into the water and after an hour got Eva to shore, where they promptly fell asleep in a cave.

Next morning, Tom climbed a cliff out of the gorge to find help. Fortunately, on this sparsely inhabited coast, he found two stockmen from the only nearvy homestead, who raised the alarm. No other survivors were found.

Pianos, dressers and other furniture washed up on beaches. One of the blowholes glowed green that night with the phosphoresence of matches carried in the ship’s hold.

Popular opinion held that Tom and Eva should marry. Tom did propose, purportedly as he’d seen Eva in her nightdress…but she declined and returned to Ireland where she married a doctor. Tom continued his career at sea, marrying the sister of one of his Loch Ard crewmates. He seemed to have a bit of a bad run, surviving another shipwreck, and losing two of his sons to shipwreck disasters.

I had no fatal lee shore threatening me, but the wind was a huge challenge. Slowed to 8 kilometres an hour in granny gear, I fought to make forty kilometres that day into Port Campbell, absolutely exhausted and dreaming of a cosy bed in a backpackers rather than a cave, damn the budget. I bought five big sausages that night and ate the lot.

I could hear the wind from my bed the next day rushing along the fence and rattling the windows. I left Sputnik to the comforts of the hostel and went for a walk in the town.

Port Campbell is no shelter in a Westerly storm. When the wind blows that way the swell rolls right under the jetty to break on reefs and the beach at the port’s end.

Aussie surf culture is alive and well in these conditions – some locals were catching a lift out on the river’s current, and catching a wave back in to the beach. An hour later two friends had joined them to hold a rope across the river while the third teetered on his board in the middle, surfing the standing waves of the freshwater rushing into the sea.

It was bizarre at the hostel that second night: a busload of British backpackers rolled up, and I was completely swamped with nineteen year olds on their first overseas trip.

IMG_0460.JPGA day’s rest clears the mind. For 24 hours you enjoy the novelty of not moving, you catch up on your eating, and let your mind slip out of the 1-2-1-2-1-2 rhythm of pedalling. The following day, the itch to move returns; you wake with the feeling that whatever the weather may be doing it’s time to be back on the road, time to make progress.

Rain squalls played with me first from the side, then from behind. Soon my raingear was saturated. It was my wettest day so far – and I’d left Tassie weeks before! The two best buys so far? My rearview mirror for truck identification, and my rubber overshoes for toasty toes. The overshoes are a little big, so the front ends poke up like winklepickers.

Beyond Port Campbell the road turns inland, away from the cliffs and towards green paddocks stocked with languid cows. All the milktrucks passing me were headed to Cheeseworld, an impressive if smelly, humming building with stainless steel tanks rising above the road.

Warrnambool, the rural centre of the region, had possibly the most perms and blue rinses I’ve ever seen in one place.

I wasn’t feeling that posh, in fact I ponged, so I did a quick whirl of the supermarket then found a great spot for my tent in the dunes. The sea roared 500m away. There wasn’t a soul about and I slept like a log.


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